The Basics of Child and Spousal Support

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When two parties marry, they create two absolute obligations. One is for the financial support of each other. The second is the financial support of any children they may have.

When a couple lives in an intact relationship, the court does not involve itself in the financial decisions of the family. However, when a couple separates, the courts have a methodology to determine interim support.

This article will not address alimony, which is support paid after the divorce is entered. It will solely address child support and the two types of support for a spouse pending finalization of a divorce.

Support is something that a party must file for in order for a court to require payments to begin. An order for support is retroactive to the date of filing only. You will not be able to go back and seek support for the period of time before filing.

Child Support
Generally, children are entitled to financial support from their parents until they turn 18 and have graduated from high school, whichever occurs later. Pennsylvania applies support guidelines based on an income shares model.

The net incomes of both parents are calculated. Net income includes income from any source, reduced by mandatory expenses such as taxes, union dues, and mandatory retirement contributions.

If a party is not working, he or she may be assessed an “earning capacity” based on educational background, work history, and the circumstances of unemployment.

Once net income is established for both parties, the family income is determined by adding those two numbers. The support guidelines outline what portion of that family income should be designated for the benefit of the children.

This amount increases with the number of children. Once that support number is determined, it is allocated between the parties based on their share of the family income.

For example, if Mother earns 75 percent of the family income, she would be responsible for 75 percent of the support figure, and Father would be responsible for 25 percent.

It is the noncustodial parent who actually pays the custodial parent. If the parties share custody, child support is paid to the shared custodian who earns less money. This is the base child-support amount.

This base support amount may be altered due to additional costs and expenses. First, the cost of health insurance is allocated among parents and may either reduce or increase support. The allocation is based on the number of parties covered vs. the number of people in the support order.

Second, over and above the base support amount, there is a contribution for childcare and private-school tuition. This contribution is made on the same percentage allocation determined in the income shares model above (if Mother made 75 percent of the family income, Mother would be responsible for 75 percent of daycare costs).

Third is unreimbursed medical expenses. The party receiving support is responsible for the first $250 of unreimbursed medical expenses per child. Thereafter, any remaining unreimbursed medical expenses are divided between the parents in the same proportion as their incomes (in our case, 75 percent/25 percent).

These expenses are allocated on an annual basis.

Finally, there may be an additional contribution toward the mortgage if the recipient spouse is residing in the home. The mortgage adjustment is a result of a formula and is discretionary with the court.

The payment of child support is not taxable to the recipient and not deductible to the payor. The recipient of the support is not responsible for identifying how the support is actually used.

Child support may always be modified based on changes in circumstances. The support guidelines are changed periodically to account for cost-of-living adjustments and changes in the rules of civil procedure.

Spousal Support/Alimony Pendente Lite
Spousal support or alimony pendente lite (APL) is support paid for the benefit of a spouse until the divorce is finalized. Generally, both forms of support are calculated the same way, but there are different legal reasons to seek one over the other.

Income and net income are calculated in the same manner as in child support. If there are no children, the net incomes of the spouses are deducted from each other and then multiplied by 40 percent to determine the appropriate amount of support to be paid to the recipient.

This base support amount may also be adjusted for the costs of health insurance and the mortgage deviation. The recipient spouse is liable for the first $250 of unreimbursed medical expenses and, thereafter, the costs are allocated by pro rata of income earned as in child support.

If there are children, child support is always calculated first. Thereafter, the payor spouse’s net income is reduced by the recipient spouse’s net income and child support. The remaining funds are multiplied by 30 percent and this is the base support amount.

Spousal support/APL is taxable to the recipient and deductible to the payor as long as it is documented by a signed writing or an order of court.

Parties can agree to the payment of support directly between themselves. However, many couples elect to go through the Domestic Relations Office and obtain a court order for support. This support is collected by wage attachment and is taken directly from the payor’s paycheck. It is paid through a statewide collections agency called PaSCDU and disbursed by automatic deposit into a bank account or by issuance of a debit card called an EPPI card.

If a party fails to make payment on their support order, the Domestic Relations Office will seek enforcement of the order. The court may issue criminal citations; deny or suspend professional, recreational, and driver’s licenses; and issue liens against real property.

This article provides only a basic overview of support in Pennsylvania. It does not deal with special issues that often arise. It is recommended that anyone seeking support consult with an attorney for advice and counsel before proceeding. BW

Debra Denison Cantor is a member at McNees Wallace and Nurick, LLC, and practices solely in the area of family and collaborative law. Information on family law may be found at

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