The Pennsylvania Child Support Formula
Pennsylvania follows the “Income Shares Model” of support. Courts ordering support refer to the current version of the Pennsylvania Child Support Guidelines contained in Chapter 1910 of the Pennsylvania Code. The guidelines approximate a total support amount that parents would spend on children in an intact family unit, and then split this amount proportionately between the parents according to their incomes.
The Pennsylvania child support formula is set out in Rule 1910-16.4. This formula uses the number of children and both parents’ combined monthly net income to determine a basic support amount according to the schedule in Rule 1910-16.3. The parents then divide responsibility for this amount in proportion to their income shares. So, for example, if a couple has two children, and parent A earns $1,000 net income per month while parent B earns $2,000 per month, the child support according to the schedule will be $1,033. Parent A will be responsible for 1/3 of this amount (1000 divided by 3000), or $344.34, and Parent B will be responsible for 2/3 (2000 divided by 3000), or $688.67. In most cases, the non-custodial parent pays the amount resulting from application of this formula to the custodial parent; the court assumes that the custodial parent’s share automatically goes to pay direct expenses for the children.
Shared Physical Custody
If the children spend at least 40% of their time with the non-custodial parent, the formula provides for an additional adjustment to acknowledge the fact that the non-custodial parent is probably paying more direct costs for things such as food and entertainment.
The court can add certain additional expenses to the basic support award and divide responsibility for these based on the parents’ income shares as well. These expenses include the cost of child care a parent needs to work, children’s health insurance premiums, and any unreimbursed children's medical expenses.
The formula builds in a self-support adjustment for extremely low-income situations to ensure that parents can meet their own basic needs for food and shelter before paying child support.
If, on the other hand, parents have an extremely high combined net income (more than $30,000 per month) the guidelines provide a method for calculating support on a percentage of income basis, as further described in Rule 1910-16.3.1.
Courts previously applied an analysis of children’s reasonable needs in light of parents’ income (known as a “Melzer analysis”) to high income cases, but this changed in 2010. Although there is now a specific formula for high income situations, the court is also required to consider factors listed in Rule 1910-16.5. These factors apply not only to high income situations, but also to any other situation where a court finds that strict application of the guideline formula would be unfair. The factors include:
- any unusual needs or obligations, including additional support obligations
- other available household income
- ages of children
- relative assets and liabilities of each parent
- the parents’ and children’s standards of living, and
- any other factors that affect the best interests of the children in a particular case.
Calculating Income Available for Support
Guideline child support is based on the combined net income—income plus or minus allowable adjustments—of both parents. Income can come from virtually any source. Common examples are wages, commissions, net self-employment income, bonuses, dividend or interest income, rent, lottery winnings, worker’s compensation or unemployment insurance benefits, and pensions or retirement benefits. Courts usually treat alimony received from the other parent as income, but may exclude it if the alimony has a specific purpose, such as tuition reimbursement, for example, rather than the purpose of providing general support. Courts carefully scrutinize deductions self-employed parents claim and may not allow everything that the IRS would allow.
Allowable deductions from income include income taxes, social security, medicare and self-employment taxes, mandatory retirement contributions, union dues, and alimony paid to the other parent. Child support paid for children of other relationships is not a deduction, but the guidelines include a method of adjustment (described in Rule 1910-16.7) for parents paying support in multiple families.
Unlike most states, Pennsylvania includes a method of calculating temporary spousal support or alimony “pendente lite” payments (payments prior to a final decree of divorce) within the child support formula, both for couples with and without children. Before calculating such an obligation, the court deducts all child support payments and any spousal support or alimony payments to former spouses from the payer’s net income.
Support Order Based on Earning Capacity
A judge who finds that either parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed may estimate the parent’s potential earning capacity in light of factors such as work history, training, education, child care responsibilities, health, and available jobs in the area, and order child support based on such earning capacity. A court won’t ordinarily do this if a parent demonstrates a substantial ongoing effort to find work.
In Pennsylvania, the support obligation continues until a child turns 18 and graduates from high school (whichever happens later). It could also end before 18 if a child is “emancipated” (living independently and providing complete self-support), or extend beyond high school graduation if a child is disabled or has significant special needs.
Prior to termination, a court won’t modify (change) an existing child support order unless there has been a substantial change in circumstances—for example, if one parent has gotten a much higher paying job or has substantially changed the amount of time spent with a child. Rule 1910.19 addresses modification and termination.
Support for Children Attending College
Although Pennsylvania law previously provided that courts could order parents to contribute to an adult child’s college expenses, Pennsylvania courts have found this law unconstitutional. Courts will uphold clear agreements between parents regarding contributions to college costs, but cannot order a parent to contribute absent such an agreement.
Applying for Child Support
The Child Support Program of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare is responsible for helping parents obtain and enforce child support orders. You can find additional information, including necessary forms for filing a child support application, on the Program’s website. The Program also maintains a child support estimator, which you can use to get a rough estimate of the amount of support a Pennsylvania court might order in your case.
If you need to begin by establishing paternity of your child, the Child Support Program can help you with this as well. If a mother brings a child support action against a person she claims is a child’s father, the father can voluntarily acknowledge paternity by signing a verified written acknowledgment. If the alleged father doesn’t sign this document, the court can order both parties to appear for genetic testing. A court can find that the alleged father is the child’s biological parent if the results of a reliable DNA test show to a 99% certainty that he is, or if he refuses to appear for testing. DNA testing is not invasive and usually consists of obtaining a saliva sample through a mouth swab.