Get guidance in emotional, legal minefield of ending marriage

Erin KomadaBy Erin Komada of Scaringi Law posted in Family Law on Thursday, August 13, 2015.

When relationships end, Pennsylvania law ensures parents' support of their children - and of each other, in certain circumstances - continues.

Just as parents have a legal duty to support their children, state law recognizes a duty of financial support between both spouses as long as the marriage legally remains. This duty of support between spouses doesn't go away when a couple separates, only when a divorce is finalized.

Navigating the financial and emotional minefield that comes with negotiating child support and spousal support isn't straightforward.

For example, payments made to an estranged spouse after a support complaint is filed may not be credited. As a result, I advise clients to cease making payments once a support complaint is filed. Rather, parents should escrow the money while awaiting the support determination and arrearage calculation.

Some Pennsylvania counties consider payments made after a support complaint is filed to be voluntary gifts. A spouse is not given credit for these payments when the arrearage is calculated. This is just one example of why a family law attorney should be at your side throughout this process.

Determining child support

The process of determining support payments begins when a spouse or parent files a support complaint with the county's Domestic Relations Section. From that time, the meter on what support will be owed is running. The support amount will be post-dated and prorated to the filing date. This back-dated sum is known as the arrears, and it will be owed to the lower-income spouse or parent when the support ruling is finalized.

After a support complaint is filed, a conference will be scheduled and a conference officer will examine the finances of both parties. All income is considered, including wages, rental properties, child tax credits, dividends, and trust funds.

The goal is for children to receive the same level of financial support as if the family had remained intact.

After the level of support is determined from the couple's combined income, it is then apportioned based on the relative totals of each parent's income. If the father earns double what the mother makes, his support obligation would be roughly double as well.

But there is a second formula to determine the child support amount, and it is based on which spouse has primary custody. In Pennsylvania, the child support guidelines assume that the primary custodian parent spends 70% of the time with the children, and therefore makes 70% of the direct expenditures on behalf of the children. Likewise, the guidelines assume that the non-custodial parent spends 30% of the time with the children, and makes 30% of the direct expenditures. However, the ratio is adjusted based on each couple's actual custody arrangement.

If there is true shared custody, the calculation ratio can approach 50-50, and the amount of support will be adjusted downward to reflect that the non-custodial parent spends more time, and makes more direct expenditures for the children, than the guideline figures assume. If the custody schedule is evenly split and the spouses' incomes are roughly equal, it's possible that no party owes support.

Supporting estranged spouses

Seeking child support is one thing; virtually all couples with minor children reach an arrangement, either on their own or through the domestic relations system. But seeking spousal support is fraught with emotion. In some cases, pressing for spousal support can poison the well for the overall divorce case. In others, it can provide an added incentive to wrap up a lingering divorce settlement.

The basic spousal support payment formula is the higher-earning spouse's net monthly income from all sources, minus the lower-earning spouse's total net income. The difference is then multiplied by 40 percent. This equation is for spouses with no minor children.

If minor children are in the picture, the low income is subtracted from the high income as before, but any monthly child support payments are also subtracted from the difference. If there is a positive sum, it is multiplied by 30 percent to calculate the final spousal support amount.

I've had many cases in which it is a wash or the spousal support amount is small, say $100 a month -- a whopping $25 a week. In such cases, my advice is often to forgo filing. This can win goodwill for the overall divorce case.

But if the income difference is large, spousal support can be downright essential. What is more, obtaining significant spousal support can spur on the divorce proceeding and cure foot-dragging over settlements. This is because the spousal support obligation goes away as soon as the divorce is finalized.

If you're facing the financial uncertainty that comes with a separation, call today. We specialize in helping families through this tough transition.


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