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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.