"It's Not Fair" – Navigating PA Domestic Relations Support Proceedings

Most people who leave a proceeding for child support, spousal support or alimony pendente lite end up muttering the same words – no matter which side they are on: "It’s not fair." This is usually followed by, "I can’t afford to live on this." Oftentimes the feeling comes from the lack of control over the situation and being unfamiliar with the process. The best way to combat this feeling is to come to an agreement with the opposing party, which is more often easier said than done. The second best way to combat this feeling is to be prepared and possess an understanding of what is going to happen at the proceedings.

Each county in Pennsylvania has a domestic relations office which handles the establishment of three types of support: child support, spousal support and alimony pendente lite. Child support is self-explanatory – it is support for the child(ren) of two individuals. Child support in Pennsylvania is calculated based on a formula wherein both parties provide gross (pre-tax) monthly income information. A net monthly income is derived based on certain allowable deductions. Once the net monthly income for each party is derived this amount is added together get the combined net monthly income. The combined net monthly income is then used to find the basic child support guideline from a chart set out in the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure. These guideline numbers are based on the projected amount spent on children in an intact family. Each party is then responsible for the portion of the guideline number based on his or her percentage of the combined net monthly income. For example, if one party contributes 60% of the combined income, that party will be responsible for 60% of the support guideline number. If the amount of overnights with the non-paying party is 40% or greater, however, the support number will be reduced from the guideline number.

Spousal support and alimony pendente lite in Pennsylvania are similar in the fact that they are both for the lower earning spouse before the divorce is final and they are both calculated based on a formula. The major difference is that while spousal support is paid after the parties separate, it may be ordered before a divorce action is even filed. Alimony pendente lite, however, is support during the pendency of the divorce proceedings. There cannot be concurrent orders for spousal support and alimony. In other words, the lower earning spouse may either receive spousal support or alimony pendente lite, but not both.

The other major difference is that while there is no defense to alimony pendente lite in Pennsylvania, one can claim entitlement defenses to spousal support. These include any grounds for a fault-based divorce, such as if a spouse has committed willful and malicious desertion, committed adultery, or offered such indignities to the innocent and injured spouse as to render that spouse’s condition intolerable and life burdensome.

The general formula to calculate spousal support and alimony pendente lite is to subtract the lower earner’s monthly net income from the high earner’s monthly net income. The difference is then multiplied by 40% to arrive at the preliminary support amount. For example, if one spouse’s net income is $55,000 and the other spouse’s net income is $25,000, the spousal support or alimony pendente lite award will be $12,000 per year, or $1,000 per month.

After the basic support amount is calculated, adjustments are made for child care expenses, health insurance premiums and private school tuition. These are normally split in proportion to each party’s share of the total combined monthly net income. The court may also deviate from the guideline calculation based on the amount of the monthly mortgage payment if the payment amount exceeds 25 % of the monthly net income for the person paying the mortgage.

In addition, each order will require the parties to share unreimbursed medical expenses in excess of $250.00. The party receiving support will be responsible for the first $250.00. After that the parties will split any unreimbursed medical expenses in proportion to their share of the total combined monthly net income. For example, if one party contributes 60% of the income, they will be responsible for 60% of the unreimbursed medical expenses.

In addition, the court may, but rarely does, deviate from the guideline number after considering the following factors:

  1. unusual needs and unusual fixed obligations;
  2. other support obligations of the parties;
  3. other income in the household;
  4. ages of the children;
  5. the relative assets and liabilities of the parties;
  6. medical expenses not covered by insurance;
  7. standard of living of the parties and their children;
  8. in a spousal support or alimony pendente lite case, the duration of the marriage from the date of marriage to the date of final separation; and
  9. other relevant and appropriate factors, including the best interests of the child or children.

With respect to the process, Pennsylvania support proceedings are fairly consistent across each county. Once a complaint for support is filed, an office conference will be scheduled. At this conference, both parties will be required to produce documentation of their income and applicable expenses. The conference officer will take this information and will input it into the system, which will then produce a support number. The parties can either agree to accept this number, agree to accept a different mutually agreed upon amount, or request a hearing if no agreement can be reached.

If an agreement is reached, the conference officer will address issues such as the effective date of the order – which is usually the date the complaint was filed – and arrears. Arrears are any back support that has accrued since the effective date.

It is often useful for parties to consult with an experienced Pennsylvania family law attorney to get a general idea of how much they might receive or have to pay, even if they do not hire the attorney to attend the initial conference themselves. If no agreement is reached at the conference, the case will proceed to a hearing. Many counties in Southeastern PA have hearings on the record at this stage, and the hearing is the one and only chance each party will have to present evidence. Therefore, anyone with questions regarding support hearings should contact an experienced attorney familiar with the local procedure, as a local attorney will be best equipped to navigate the nuances specific to that jurisdiction. Hiring an attorney can help minimize the chance that litigants will walk out of the proceeding saying "it’s not fair."