Defending against deadbeats: Child support law keeps kids whole as families split
By Erin Komada of Scaringi Law posted in Family Law on Thursday, September 10, 2015.
The guiding principle of Pennsylvania's child support laws is for children to receive the same level of financial support as if the fracturing family remained intact. However, this goal can be difficult to achieve, especially given the ill will that accompanies some divorces.
Luckily, the law is very specific on these issues, and no parent can simply decide to reduce what he or she pays in child support.
No cheating the children
Both parents' income is taken into account when child support is calculated. If a parent's income changes, it could alter the calculation - but only if one of the parents files for a support modification with the county's Domestic Relations Section.
No one's income remains the same forever. On the plus side, people get new jobs, land big bonuses or gain new clients - and their child support payment can increase to reflect the additional money. On the opposite end, people lose good-paying jobs and small businesses take turns for the worse, potentially reducing support payments.
The system is designed to handle these changes fairly by re-examining both parents' income. When either party becomes aware of an income change, he or she can file for a modification of child support. What is more, Domestic Relations conducts reviews of child support cases every three years or so, looking for changes in income.
Discovering a parent's real income can get tricky, especially when small-business owners and all-cash income streams are involved. But there are ways to get to the bottom of things, even if it means putting an accountant on the case.
When income decreases
When a parent suddenly loses a job or business sales slip, he or she can be quick to seek reduced child support obligations. The final decision on any downward modification depends on whether the reduction in income is deemed voluntary or involuntary and the parent's earning capacity.
So what is voluntary and involuntary? A parent losing a job without fault has an involuntary loss of income. But if the parent brought on the firing, the income reduction is deemed voluntary and it is unlikely the support obligation will be reduced.
The same test is put to small-business owners. If a sudden downward trend in revenues can be traced to deliberate actions or accounting tricks, the income loss is ruled voluntary and the support obligation remains. It's important to look at business tax returns, itemized deductions, expenses, insurance and income streams to determine what is legitimate. Often, it makes sense to base support levels on average earnings over several years, avoiding annual modifications as sales ebb and flow.
In short, the system is designed to prevent parents from artificially altering income to shirk child support obligations.
Dealing with deadbeats
Once Domestic Relations issues a child support ruling, the obligation is made retroactive to the date of filing. This back-dated support amount is known as the arrears. The monthly support amount plus 10 percent toward the arrears is due on the first of the month.
To avoid collection hassles, Domestic Relations typically has the parents' wages attached so the support amount goes directly to the state Collection and Distribution Unit, which pays the custodial parent. This happens about 90 percent of the time.
But there are cases - many times when a parent deals heavily in cash - when the arrears swells to thousands of dollars because of missed payments. Parents owing massive amounts of back support are commonly known as "deadbeats.''
Even after children turn 18, unpaid support remains a legal obligation.
In dealing with deadbeats, the first step is to contact Domestic Relations, which can bring legal action against parents who don't pay owed support for three months or more. The agency can press contempt proceedings before a county judge. If wages aren't being garnished, this will be ordered. When that hasn't worked, some deadbeat parents have been sent to country prison for up to six months or ordered into work-release programs. State driver's licenses and professional licenses can be suspended, and assets can be frozen.
A parent owed money should never give up. Overdue support can become a lien on property, meaning when any real estate holdings are sold, the owed parent sees the money.
Child support is a legal process. All decisions can be appealed to a common pleas judge, who holds a hearing. At these sessions, there are three parties: both parents and a representative from Domestic Relations. This is important because there are times when Domestic Relations errs in calculating support, and it takes a hearing to make it right.
Clients also have the option to reach a settlement at any time during the process. But it's key to have a knowledgeable family law attorney by your side who knows the child support system and the range of options available to clients.
At the heart of it all remains the children. They should never have to suffer with less when parents part ways.