Unemployment is everywhere across Pennsylvania at an unprecedented level, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Non-essential” business offices remain closed as our economy labors under life-support, leaving us all to wonder what happens next. Long-term financial planning is difficult or impossible. Many who have not already have been laid off are worried about whether they will have a job next month, or even next week. The latest statistics show that one in six Pennsylvanians have filed for Unemployment Compensation, and that number will continue to increase now that self-employed workers are also eligible to apply. Unemployment has touched all industries and income levels, and even those who previously considered themselves financially secure now find themselves tightening their belts.
Nobody predicted that a worldwide pandemic would practically shut down our economy, or that it would hit hard-working Pennsylvanians so severely in just about every industry. This leaves many worried that they will lose their jobs to the Coronavirus pandemic, required to pay alimony but unable to afford it, and wondering about the consequences for not paying and whether there is any recourse or relief. If your ex-spouse pays you alimony, you might be afraid of a double-whammy from losing both your job and your alimony payments.
If you are paying alimony, where you stand may depend on whether your obligation is part of an agreement you reached with your spouse to settle your divorce, or whether a judge ordered it after a trial. Alimony ordered by a judge is potentially modifiable and can even be terminated if circumstances have changed substantially. That can include loss of employment due to a layoff. If that is your situation, you may be permitted to ask the court to reduce your alimony obligation. Whether you could lower or terminate your alimony, if you lose your job, will depend on numerous factors such as how much your income has gone down, what your ex-spouse is earning, and other facts specific to each individual case.
If you and your spouse agreed to an amount of alimony, that could be another matter, entirely. Courts in Pennsylvania routinely hold that monthly alimony payments made under the terms of an agreement are not modifiable. Read your divorce agreement carefully. Many marriage settlement agreements drafted by an experienced Pennsylvania family law attorney specifically state that alimony cannot be modified under any circumstances until it is scheduled to end. Agreements like that are treated as contracts under Pennsylvania divorce law, and a family court judge does not have the power to override them. That means that if you agreed to pay non-modifiable alimony, or if your agreement has provisions about when it can change that does not include this situation, you are still required to continue paying alimony in full and on time. There is no decision from the higher courts in Pennsylvania that provide for any exception due to lack of employment as a result of COVID-19. The best way to get out of trouble is often to avoid it in the first place, and so my advice is almost always going to be that if you can afford to pay the amount as ordered, you should continue to do so.
If it is genuinely impossible for you to meet your full alimony obligation, you still need to make a genuine, good-faith attempt to do so. It is far better to pay something regularly and on time, rather than to pay nothing. Judges who are called upon to make decide whether you have willfully chosen to abandon your obligation are more likely to cut you a break if you did your very best to keep faith with former spouse by prioritizing that obligation and sticking to the deal as much as possible without waiting to be told. Doing that also raises the likelihood of solutions based on compromise. A family law attorney can help you through this period – the earlier, the better – by discussing ways for you to stay in compliance, helping you minimize your liability for shorted payments, and by proposing compromises such as lowering your current payments in exchange for extending the duration of your obligation. Although it may seem strange to recommend paying an attorney when money is short, spending some money now to guide you the right direction can be your best investment to save plenty of money and aggravation down the line. Your attorney can help you identify solutions that help you address both the immediate and the long term issues, showing you options that you might not even have known were available to you. In this new and difficult financial reality, we could all use more options!
If you need the help of an experienced family law attorney for your alimony or support case in Squirrel Hill, Greenfield or Edgewood, call our office to set up a personal consultation with an experienced Pittsburgh area support and alimony enforcement attorney and to learn how to get the most out of your modification dispute. Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential. We try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that we will not offer legal advice via the Internet.
You have been ordered to pay support for your spouse and/or for your children. Despite your willingness to make the best of a difficult situation, the “one size fits all” Domestic Relations system can still trip you up. The devil is always in the details where support orders are concerned, and losing track can cause you grief down the line. The suggestions below should help you stay out of trouble and protect your rights.
READ YOUR ORDER. You are bound to its terms, even the “boilerplate.” Know your obligations as well as your rights. Violating your order can get you into serious – and expensive – trouble. Remember that the best way to get out of trouble is not to get into it in the first place, and forewarned is definitely forearmed.
WHEN YOUR INCOME CHANGES SUBSTANTIALLY, your Order requires you to report the change to the court and to the person receiving the support money, in writing. This includes substantial increases and decreases of income and change (or loss) of employment. Even though reporting a raise might end up with you being dragged back to Court for a possible increase in support, your silence assumes the risk that it could come back to haunt you later. When you change jobs, be sure to provide the court with your new employer’s name and address as soon as possible, and remember that the ultimate obligation to pay support is yours, and not your employer’s. All communications to the court should include your ten-digit Member Number (which the court will assign), your docket number and nine-digit PACSES number. Keep track of all communications with the court (including the date of your communication), and keep copies of anything you send. When you send something to the Court, you should also send it to the person receiving the support or his/her attorney.
CONTACT YOUR ATTORNEY PROMPTLY if you lose your job, take a substantial pay cut, if anything else happens that might interfere with your ability to pay, or if you are notified that a hearing has been scheduled in your case. If you are considering leaving your job for one with lower pay, discuss this with your attorney before resigning. Letting time pass without taking action can get you into trouble if you fail to pay as ordered, and will postpone any favorable changes to which you might be entitled. Usually, changes to support orders only date back to when you filed your request for modification. Talk to your family law attorney before requesting modification, because those requests can sometimes backfire on you. Remember that reporting a reduced income to the court is not the same thing as asking for a modification to your support order!
DON’T WAIT FOR THE WAGE ATTACHMENT before you start paying. Your payroll department can take up to a month or more to process the wage attachment order, and meanwhile you are on the hook. After all, you are the one who will be in trouble if you become delinquent in your obligation. There will be a new line-item deduction on your paycheck when the wage attachment takes effect; meanwhile, for each paycheck that does not deduct your support payment, you should send a check for a pro-rated amount to the court (your family law attorney can provide you with a payment coupon if the court did not). If you are paid every two weeks, multiply your monthly support obligation by 12 and divide by 26 to learn how much to send from each pay. If possible, avoid paying by money order; all your receipt can prove is that a money order existed, and not who cashed it.
OBEY THE ORDER. The court will enforce its own orders. Even if you are appealing the order or waiting for a hearing for the court to consider modifying your order downward, you remain obligated to obey each order unless and until it is changed. If you fall too far behind in your support obligation, automatic enforcement procedures start to kick in that can include contempt proceedings, suspension of driver’s license and professional license, increased payment against arrears, negative credit agency reports, and tax refund interception.
WHEN YOUR CHILD EMANCIPATES, your obligation to support that child ends. A child usually emancipates when he or she turns eighteen years of age, and no longer attends High School. Exceptions can be made for adult children who have never been emancipated, and are incapable of self-support due to extreme physical or psychiatric handicaps. The burden is on you to request support termination in a timely fashion, since the termination usually cannot be effective before you file your claim.
NEVER MISS A HEARING. Failure to attend a scheduled hearing can result in the court proceeding without you (and you will be stuck with the result!), and it can even issue a “body attachment” warrant for your arrest. You will usually be notified of hearings only by a single letter sent by first class mail; if that mail is not returned by the Post Office as undeliverable, the court will assume that you received it and have been notified, whether you actually know about the hearing, or not. If the court sends you mail, always open and read it right away! You can ask the court for postponement of a hearing if you are unavailable, but always through Motions Court, and always in advance; the responsibility is on you to take care of this properly, and in a timely fashion. Assume that no excuse is good enough to get you out from under the penalties from a missed hearing, except the most extreme emergency… and even then, it will be your responsibility to be proactive.
IMMEDIATELY REPORT CHANGES OF ADDRESS TO THE COURT and the other side. This is your responsibility and no one else’s, and it is in your interest to ensure that the court knows where to send notices to you. Make sure that your family law attorney also knows your change of address, even if he no longer represents you, unless he officially withdrew. Sometimes, attorneys are served with court notices instead of you, and your attorney needs to know where to forward the notice.
NEVER COMPLETELY TRUST THE WORD OF COURT PERSONNEL OR YOUR “EX” without something in writing to back it up. When dealing with the court, different people will sometimes tell you different things, especially if you are on the telephone; you will probably never know exactly who you are dealing with, how much he or she actually knows, how much authority the person actually has, or whether the person will follow through. Support payees have been known to “forget” about direct payments or promises, especially when there is no paper trail for proof. “The clerk told me it was okay if…” will never get you out of trouble, nor will “My ex told me it was okay if I got behind in my support for a while, as long as I catch up later.” Play it safe, and consult your family law attorney.
DO NOT PAY YOUR “EX” DIRECTLY, once the Order is issued. Without a “Notice to Credit Direct Payment” form filed promptly with your local collection office, you only get credit for payments made through the Pennsylvania State Collection and Disbursement Unit (PA SCDU) in Harrisburg. Play it safe and pay only through SCDU, or you risk having to pay the same debt twice.
IF YOUR EMPLOYMENT IS SEASONAL OR YOUR OVERTIME FLUCTUATES, this should have been taken into account when your support order was issued. The fact that your income drops during portions of the year does not usually reduce your support obligation during those times. Be sure to set aside some money during the good months to pay directly to the Court during your off season, to ensure that you do not fall behind in your support obligation. Your duty to pay continues whether or not you are bringing in enough money during a given month; preparing in advance can turn what could have been a personal disaster into a mere inconvenience. If you are not sure how much to send, talk to your family law attorney.
KEEP GOOD FINANCIAL RECORDS. This includes tax records and pay stubs, as well as any and all other sources of income (unemployment compensation, “side jobs,” etc.). The more organized you are, the more effectively your family law attorney can advise you and represent your interests.
THERE IS NO ACCOUNTABILITY FOR HOW THE SUPPORT MONEY IS SPENT by the recipient. You have no right to demand receipts, or to insist that it be spent in particular ways. It just goes into the recipient’s household income.
YOU MUST MAKE YOUR SUPPORT PAYMENTS EVEN IF YOU DO NOT OR CANNOT SEE YOUR CHILDREN. Custody rights and support rights are usually not connected. If you try to withhold support because you are being prevented from seeing your children, the court will see it as if you were punishing the children for the other parent’s actions. For that reason, refusal to pay child support can harm your custody case. If you are being denied access to your children, discuss the matter with your family law attorney promptly, because delay is another thing that can harm your custody case.
WHEN IN DOUBT, FIND OUT! Was your most recent payment received? Are you behind in your support? How much do you still owe on your arrears? These and other questions can be answered by contacting the Pennsylvania Statewide Collection and Disbursement Unit (PA SCDU) at 1-877-727-7238, or on the web at www.childsupport.state.pa.us.
SOME OF THE SUPPORT YOU PAY MAY BE TAX-DEDUCTIBLE. Child support is not deductible from your Federal taxable income, but spousal support (and alimony) usually is. Many support awards for spouse and children are unallocated, meaning that they do not separately identify one part for your spouse, and another for your children; payments on unallocated awards are usually completely deductible from your Federal taxable income; consult your family law attorney and/or a tax professional to be sure. Be sure to keep your own records for tax purposes, since (unlike your employer) the court will not supply you with a year-end summary statement. You can get a printout of how much support you have paid during a particular year either from your local court, or from the web at www.childsupport.state.pa.us.
IF YOUR CHILD IS NOT LIVING WITH THE OTHER PARENT to whom you are paying support, you should promptly ask the court to terminate the support award, since any delay will delay termination of the award. Worse, if your child is or was in County placement and you do not terminate the support award to the other parent, you could find yourself paying support twice for the same time period! The County will sue you for support to recover a portion of its costs during the period of County placement, even if your child is no longer in custody at the time you are notified of the suit (which can happen even years afterward). It is sometimes possible to win against the County’s support claim based on their delay in proceeding, and/or an inability to pay.
If you need legal assistance with your divorce or family law matter in Southwestern Pennsylvania, call my office to set up a personal consultation with an experienced Pittsburgh child support lawyer, and to learn more about Pennsylvania child custody laws and how they affect you. Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential. We try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that we will not offer legal advice via the Internet.
“You never realize how short a month is until you pay alimony.” — John Barrymore
One of the more common misconceptions about Pennsylvania divorce law has to do with alimony. Throughout my career, clients have asked me, “Is there alimony in Pennsylvania?” Happily for some and sadly for others the answer is yes, there is alimony in Pennsylvania.
Unlike spousal support and alimony pendente lite (courtspeak for temporary alimony, and often abbreviated as “APL”), which are usually calculated according to a guideline formula, alimony is much more dependent on the discretion of the court unless the divorcing spouses are able to reach an agreement.
The economic reality of marriage.
Unless the married couple has signed a prenuptial agreement that says neither spouse will be entitled to alimony, it is important to realize that the act of getting married does not just bind you and your spouse to each other, but also to the terms of the Pennsylvania Divorce Code. Marriage, under the Pennsylvania domestic relations law, is an act of becoming economically interdependent. Creating a marital union in Pennsylvania means that economically as well as personally, a “you” and a “me” become an “us.” One spouse often becomes economically dependent on the other during the course of a marriage, and Pennsylvania law offers economic protection to that spouse in the event of a separation. One spouse might be dependent on the other from staying home to raise the children or otherwise performing domestic services as a homemaker. Also, a spouse can become disabled, can be laid off and unable to find new employment at the same pay, or might simply be in a career that offers less income potential. An economically-dependent spouse may have sacrificed opportunities for job seniority or additional training, or may have worked to put the other spouse through school. Pennsylvania domestic relations law recognizes the reality of this, and the mission of the court is to do economic justice when a married couple separates and divorces. Alimony is one of the tools available to the judge assigned to the divorce case.
Seventeen factors to consider for an award of alimony in Pennsylvania.
There is no set formula to calculate the amount of alimony in Pennsylvania, the way spousal support or APL is calculated. Instead, there are — literally — seventeen factors that a judge is expected to take into account when deciding whether there will be alimony and (if so) how much, for how long. These factors include how long the marriage lasted until the date of final separation, what each spouse is capable of earning, whose ability to earn might be affected by taking care of the children, and each spouse’s relative health. It is easy to see that this gives a judge a very wide discretion. The good news about this is that the court has the power to create an alimony award that fits the actual needs and circumstances of both spouses. The bad news is that it is correspondingly hard to challenge alimony through appeal, because if the Superior Court decides that the judge was operating within his or her discretion, and that there is evidence enough to support the award, the alimony order will stand.
Does adultery prevent an award of alimony in Pennsylvania?
Marital misconduct — adultery, brutality, abandonment, etc. — is indeed one of the seventeen factors a court must consider before making an award of alimony to an economically-dependent spouse. However, it is only one of the seventeen, and you can expect the court to weigh a claim of adultery or another form of marital misconduct (as well as your spouse’s defenses) as part of the whole situation rather than viewing it exclusively in its own light. Also, divorce law in Pennsylvania specifically excludes marital misconduct occurring after the date of final separation when considering an award of alimony, unless one spouse has abused the other. This means that a separated spouse is free to be in a romantic relationship with another partner without penalty once the spouses have made their final separation.
How long does alimony last in Pennsylvania?
The duration of an alimony award depends on the circumstances of the case, and on the judge. A court has the authority and discretion to award alimony for a definite period (up to the remainder of a lifetime), or an indefinite period (i.e., open-ended and subject to later review). Lifetime alimony awards are very rare, but they do happen if the circumstances justify it. Awards of alimony remain within the discretion of the court to modify or terminate, if one of the former spouses is able to prove that there has been a change in circumstances of a substantial and continuing nature. Cohabitation and remarriage ordinarily will terminate alimony, as will the death of either spouse.
If you need legal assistance with your divorce or family law matter in Southwestern Pennsylvania, call my office to set up a personal consultation with a Pittsburgh divorce lawyer about alimony in PA. Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential. We try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that we will not offer legal advice via the Internet.
One of the more challenging issues for separated parents to resolve is arranging for child support. In Pennsylvania, provided that the parents agree, there is often no need to go to court. If one parent sues the other, though, support will be calculated according to state guidelines.
The purpose of child support.
Each parent has an obligation under the law to support his or her children. The “custodial parent” (that is, the parent with whom the children spend the majority of their time) fulfills that obligation by maintaining the household in which the children reside, by paying mortgage or rent, buying groceries, maintaining home utilities, keeping the car running, etc. The “noncustodial parent” usually supports the children by paying a certain amount of money each month into the custodial household according to a set of child support guidelines.
There can be frustrations for both the parent who has to pay, and the parent who gets the payment. The first might question whether the money is actually being used directly for the children, and the other might wonder how to meet the needs of active, growing children even with the support money. All of this can create tension for the children if their parents are careless, especially when one or both parents make the mistake of discussing support woes with them or — worse — trying to enlist them in an effort to influence the other parent. Too many children have to listen to statements like, “Your father the cheapskate would rather spend money on his girlfriend,” or “Talk to your mother if you want that; that’s what I pay support for.” Try not to go there.
The Pennsylvania child support guidelines.
When parents go to court, their net monthly income or earning capacity is determined and then child support is calculated by a formula using a guideline chart to determine the presumed correct amount. As you explore the chart, please realize that the guideline is only a starting point. The support number that you end up with can be affected by many considerations such as children of other relationships, certain expenses, and other factors. Please note particularly that when a noncustodial parent has a high percentage of custody time that can reduce his or her monthly obligation, and that an equally-shared custody arrangement also has an effect. Consulting with a family law attorney can help you ensure that you are taking everything into account.
The Pennsylvania Child Support Program website offers a PA child support calculator. As with any online resource (including this one!), use your best discretion and judgment.
Easy taxes to calculate: Social Security/Medicare in 2017 is 7.65% of gross annual income below $118,500. Pennsylvania Income Tax in 2017 is 3.07% of gross annual income. Pittsburgh municipal wage tax for city residents in 2017 is 3% of gross annual income. Wage tax is 1% of gross annual income for: Edgewood, Fox Chapel, Homestead, McKees Rocks, Monroeville, Munhall, Murrysville, Oakmont, Swissvale and Verona. Wage tax is 1.3% of gross annual income for: Mt. Lebanon Wage tax is 1.75% of gross annual income for: Penn Hills
Calculating basic guideline support. Note: in Pennsylvania, the person paying support is called the “obligor.” The person receiving support is the “obligee.”
1. Add both parents’ net monthly incomes to get a combined income total.
2. Divide the obligor’s net monthly income by the total from number 1, above. This will give you the obligor’s share of the combined income total.
3. Using the leftmost column of the guideline chart, find your combined income total, and then move to the right, to the column for the correct number of children. This is your combined basic child support obligation.
4. Multiply the combined basic child support obligation by the obligor’s share of the parents’ combined income from number 2, above, to get the obligor’s basic monthly child support obligation.
Example: Let’s assume that there are two children, that Father is the obligor and is earning $2,600 net per month, and that Mother is earning $2,200 net per month. Step 1: We add the two incomes to get a combined total income of $4,800. Step 2: We divide Father’s income of $2,600 by the total, and see that he is making about 0.54 (or 54%) of the combined total income. Step 3: According to the guideline chart, the combined basic child support obligation for two children with a combined total income of $4,800 is $1,325. Step 4: Multiplying that total figure by Father’s share of 0.54 yields his basic monthly child support obligation of $716.
Some helpful information. Cost of medical insurance. If the obligor is maintaining medical insurance for the children at a cost, he or she should get a discount in basic child support obligation equal to the obligee’s proportionate share of the expense attributable to the children. If the obligee is the one maintaining insurance, there is a similar increase in the monthly support obligation. If the children’s share of the expense is not known, the total monthly cost of insurance can be divided by the number of people covered under the policy, and then multiplied by the number of children being supported.
Unreimbursed medical expenses. Usually, the obligee is held responsible for the first $250 per child, per calendar year, in medical expenses that insurance does not cover (such as copayments). After that threshold is reached, unreimbursed medical expenses usually are divided between the parties proportionately to their respective incomes. Keeping good records of expenses and payment is essential.
Child care costs. Usually, child care expenses that are necessary to enable a parent to maintain employment are considered to be the responsibility of both parents, and will be apportioned between them proportionately to their respective incomes in addition to the basic child support obligation.
Support arrears. In Pennsylvania, child support awards made through the court usually have two components: current support, and payment against any arrears. Arrears can accrue because a support obligation is awarded retroactively to the date of the obligee’s claim, or because the obligor did not pay as ordered.
Earning capacity. Sometimes, a parent can be treated as if he or she earns more than he or she is earning from employment. An earning capacity can be assigned, for example, in cases where a parent has chosen not to work (or works “off the books”) to avoid paying support.
If you need legal assistance with your divorce or family law matter in Southwestern Pennsylvania, call us to set up a personal consultation. Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential. We try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that we will not offer legal advice via the Internet.