Imputing Income for Child Support in Pennsylvania

A look at the process of imputing income in Pennsylvania and how it impacts child support.

In Pennsylvania, both parents must provide financial support to their children at least until the children turn 18 or become emancipated, which means they can support themselves. When parents have divorced, separated, or have never lived together, the parent with more custodial time is generally entitled to receive child support payments from the other parent (the noncustodial parent).

Unfortunately, sometimes, a parent doesn’t want to pay child support or doesn’t want to pay the amount that the court has ordered. The parent might quit his job or take a job making less money in order to reduce the child support order. In such a situation, the court may impute (attribute) income to the parent in order to make a proper child support order and ensure the children's financial needs are met.

This article explains when and how courts impute income for child support purposes in Pennsylvania. If you still have questions after reading this article, you should contact an experienced Pennsylvania family law attorney for help.

How Courts Set Child Support

When parents can't agree on child support, they will typically end up in court, asking a judge to decide. The child support amount depends primarily on the income of both parents and the number of children involved, so one of the first steps in determining a child support obligation is to figure out how much income each parent earns. See Child Support in Pennsylvania for instructions on how to estimate child support.

However, income includes more than just what a person makes at a job or claims on taxes. For child support purposes in Pennsylvania, income can include any of the following:

  • bonuses
  • commissions
  • pensions and retirement plans
  • Social Security benefits
  • unemployment compensation
  • veteran’s benefits
  • interest on investments
  • gains from business dealings, and
  • rents from properties.

Where a parent does not have a job (unemployed) or is working at a job for which he or she is overqualified (underemployed), the court may impute or attribute additional income to that parent after investigating the facts and circumstances of the case.

Imputing Income for Child Support

When a court “imputes income,” it means that the judge assigns an income to the parent that is different from and greater than what the parent is actually earning. In order to impute income, the court must first determine why the parent is unemployed or underemployed.

In general, courts won't impute income where the parent’s income has decreased through no fault of the parent. For example, where a parent is unemployed due to illness, a disability or a lay-off, a court is unlikely to impute income to that parent.

However, if the court finds that the parent is intentionally unemployed or underemployed in order to avoid paying support, the judge is allowed to impute or attribute additional income for the purpose of calculating child support. For example, if the parent quits a stable job and takes a lower-skilled, lower-paying job instead, the court may impute income.

Similarly, if a parent is able to work full-time, but voluntarily reduces his or her work hours without any reason, a court is not likely to accept as valid any claims that parent may make regarding the inability to pay child support. In this situation, the court will likely impute the amount of income the parent was making when he or she was working full-time.

If a judge decides it is appropriate to impute income in a given case, the court will assign to that parent an income equal to his or her "earning capacity" or ability to earn income.

Determining Imputed Income

Once the court has determined that a parent who is supposed to pay child support ("paying parent") is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed in order to avoid or reduce a child support obligation, the court will need to decide how much income to impute to the paying parent.

According to the Pennsylvania law, the court should impute an amount equal to the paying parent's earning capacity, meaning what the paying parent could earn in a full-time position suited to his or her experience level and field of work.

To determine earning capacity, the court must consider a number of factors, including, but not limited to:

  • age
  • education
  • training
  • health
  • work experience
  • earnings history, and
  • childcare responsibilities.

By imputing income equal to the paying parent's earning capacity, the court can ensure that the children will be adequately and fairly supported by the child support order.

Resources

For the full text of the law governing child support in Pennsylvania, see 231 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 1910.

For more general information about child support in Pennsylvania, see the Pennsylvania Child Support Program website sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.

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