For a divorcing couple with children in Pennsylvania, there are many critical child support questions that need to be answered and understood before there can be any kind of permanent resolution to the financial aspects of how their children will be taken care of going forward. Below are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about PA child support.
Child Support is financial support given by parents to their children and is most often required when parents separate or divorce. Child Support can also be ordered when parents have never married and one parent is not contributing to a child’s support.
Both heterosexual and same-sex parents are required to support their children. See Same-sex Divorce Couples: Answers to Child Custody and Support for a discussion of Child Support issues for same-sex couples.
The purpose of Pennsylvania’s Child Support law is to provide a child of divorced, separated, or never-married parents with the financial support he would have received if he and his parents lived together in the same household.
Which parent is required to support a child?
Both parents are required by Pennsylvania law to financially support their children, though each may do so in a different manner.
Generally, the parent with whom the child lives a majority of the time (the parent with primary physical custody) will be seen to meet his or her Child Support obligation by providing the child with day-to-day needs, while the parent without primary physical custody will meet his or her obligation by making a payment to the parent with primary custody. Which parent pays the other will depend not only upon the custodial arrangements, but upon the parents’ respective incomes or “earning capacities,” as described in more detail below.
What do you mean by “earning capacities”?
A person’s earning capacity is his or her ability to earn, given his or her experience and education. If a parent quits a job or does not make an effort to obtain suitable employment, the court will impute (assign) income to the parent. The court will then assess that parent with the same support obligation the parent would have been assessed if he or she were actually earning that income. The court will do so even if the parent did not intend to avoid Child Support by lowering his or her income.
During what part of a child’s life are parents required to support their child?
Generally, in Pennsylvania, parents are required to support their children until the children reach the age of 18 or graduate from high school, whichever occurs later. If a child remains in high school after reaching 18 and then fails or withdraws before graduating, a court may relieve the parent of the obligation of support at that time.
In some cases, parents may be required to support a child beyond the age of 18 if the child cannot support himself because of a mental or physical disability that existed at the time the child reached the age of 18.
In all cases, a parent’s obligation to support his or her child ceases upon the parent’s death. In other words, support payments will not be made from the deceased parent’s estate.
How is the amount of Child Support determined?
To determine the amount of support to which a particular child is entitled, the court will look to a Guideline established by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Guideline is a formula based upon the reasonable needs of a child and the ability of a child’s parents to provide for those needs.
How is this Guideline created?
Authoritative economic studies provide estimates of the average amount of household expenditures for children in intact households, and show that the proportion of household spending devoted to children is directly related to the level of household income and to the number of children in the family.
Thus, the Guideline is a reliable estimate of the financial support a child of parents with a particular income would have enjoyed if the family lived together in the same household. The Guideline is reviewed at least once every four years to ensure that it continues to reflect the current economic costs of raising a child for parents with a particular level of income.
How does the court determine where my child and I fit into this Guideline?
The Guideline will show the total amount of support you and your child’s other parent are expected to provide your child, based upon your combined net income or earning capacity. Each of you will then be required to contribute a share of that amount in proportion to your share of the combined net income or earning capacity.
As stated above, the parent with primary custody (the custodial parent) may satisfy a part or all of his or her obligation through direct expenditures for food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and other reasonable daily needs that are made while the child is living with that parent. The parent without primary custody may satisfy his or her portion of the obligation by making periodic support payments to the custodial parent.
The court will also address any special needs your child might have that are not accounted for in the Guideline. If you child has exceptional medical or educational needs, for example, the support amount will be adjusted accordingly.
What if we have shared custody or one of us has sole custody?
As stated above, a parent’s support obligation will be satisfied in part by expenditures made while the parent has custody of the child. The court will take the amount of custody each parent has into account in determining how each parent will satisfy his or her support obligation.
When parties share custody equally, the parent with the higher net income will usually be required to pay something to the other parent. When one parent has sole custody, the non-custodial parent will generally be required to pay, unless the income of the custodial parent far exceeds that of the non-custodial parent.
Can I decrease my Child Support payments if my ex-spouse keeps me from visiting my child?
No, you cannot. Visitation and Child Support are separate issues. If your ex-spouse interferes with your right to visitation, you will need to resolve that issue in court apart from the issue of Child Support. If a court has ordered you to pay Child Support, you are not relieved of the obligation because your ex-spouse refuses to let you visit your children or even because your children refuse to see you.
Can a mother be ordered to pay Child Support?
Yes, a mother as well as a father can be ordered to pay Child Support if, for example, the father has primary custody and the mother’s income is sufficient, or if the parents share custody and the mother’s income is greater than the father’s.
What if I have a lot of expenses of my own and can’t afford to pay the amount set by the Guideline?
Parents are expected to put the needs of their children above their own and to meet their Child Support obligation by adjusting their other expenditures. Although the Guideline focuses on net income and earning capacity rather than expenses, it takes into account the reasonable needs of a parent with a particular income level in determining a parent’s ability to pay.
Once a parent’s basic needs are accounted for, the child’s needs receive priority over the parent’s additional needs or desires. If there are special needs or circumstances, however, the court may deviate from the Guideline and reduce your obligation to account for your unusual needs.
What if I have a very low income and cannot afford to pay Child Support?
Even when a parent’s income and earning capacity is at poverty level, a parent may be required to supply a minimal level of support. If, however, your earning capacity is so low that even this level of support is impossible, the court may not order any support at all.
What if my ex-spouse has a very high income and my children are used to more than the “reasonable needs” provided by the Guideline?
Pennsylvania law addresses this situation, as well, by requiring parents whose combined monthly income is above $30,000 to provide their children with the level of financial support they would have received if they lived with their high-income parents. In other words, since these children would have received support well beyond their “reasonable needs” if they lived in an intact household, they are entitled to that same level of support even when they do not live with both their parents.
Why should I pay Child Support to my ex-spouse when I am already paying alimony?
Alimony is awarded as a means of providing support to your ex-spouse, while Child Support is awarded as a means of supporting your child or children. Your Child Support payments are to be used by your ex-spouse only for the benefit of your children. These are not duplicate payments.
Will I be required to pay Child Support if I am not the child’s biological parent?
You may be required to pay Child Support even if you are not a child’s biological parent if you are found to be a “parent by estoppel.” In other words, if you acted as if you were the child’s parent before divorce or separation, you may be “estopped” (prevented) from claiming you are not the child’s parent in order to avoid paying child support.
Courts have found someone to have “acted as a parent” when that person supported the child, cared for the child when the child was sick, took the child to the doctor, school, or sporting events, helped the child with homework, attended parent-teacher conferences, or otherwise bonded with and interacted with the child as a biological or adoptive parent would.
Is it true that the court will determine the parentage of our child before Child Support can be ordered?
Yes, the court will need to establish the parentage of both parents. Only a “parent” is allowed to receive or required to pay Child Support. For purposes of Child Support, a “parent” is a biological or adoptive parent, or a parent by estoppel, as described above.
Generally, if a child is born to married parents, the child is presumed to be the child of both spouses. Paternity can also be established with an Acknowledgement of Paternity Form, if both parents signed the form at the hospital where the child was born.
Can an award of Child Support be changed?
Because circumstances may change over time for both the child and his parents, the amount of support owed and even the parent owing it may need to be periodically adjusted. These adjustments, or modifications, are necessary to ensure that the child continues to receive the level of support he is entitled to under the law. See Modification of Child Support Orders for an in-depth discussion of when Child Support orders may be changed.
If my ex-spouse remarries, will she be able to get out of paying Child Support?
A parent’s remarriage does not generally affect the parent’s obligation to pay Child Support. If the marriage leads to a change in circumstances sufficient to warrant a modification of the Child Support award, however, the award may be altered by the court to adjust for the change.
What if my spouse fails to pay Child Support ordered by the court?
Child Support is taken very seriously in Pennsylvania and throughout the country and will be rigorously enforced.
Should I try to handle Child Support issues on my own?
Child Support issues can be very complicated. The assistance of a knowledgeable family law attorney is always advisable.