Child support is a monthly payment a parent makes to help cover the costs of raising a child. Usually, these payments are from one parent to the other. The parent who cares for a child most of the time (called the custodial parent) tends to receive the child support payments. This is because the law assumes that the custodial parent already spends money directly on the child. The parent with less parenting time (called the non-custodial parent) usually makes the payments. In Pennsylvania, however, the law allows for a caregiver different from the parent – even if this person does not have an order granting custody of the child – to request child support.
Typically, parents must pay child support until the child is 18, but there are some exceptions. Payments are cut short when a child becomes emancipated. On the other hand, a court could order parents to support a disabled child for a longer time. Also, one or both parents could be on the hook to cover the child’s undergraduate or vocational expenses after high school.
The payment amount depends on the Pennsylvania child support guidelines. The guidelines are based primarily on the number of children who need support and the income of both parents. Within those parameters, however, there is some flexibility to account for the child’s reasonable needs, the paying parent’s ability to provide support, and for particular custody arrangements.
The guidelines are simply a fee schedule of basic child support obligations. Although a court presumes that the number given by the guidelines is the appropriate amount of child support, a judge could deviate from the guidelines – in other words, increase or decrease the amount of support – for the following reasons:
While these factors may support an adjustment up or down to the payment amount, there are still other expenses that impact support payments. For example, parents remain responsible for the cost of childcare or private school. And the child’s health insurance is another expense that one or both of the parents must pay.
Where parents share custody and either could cover the child’s health insurance, the court could choose either one or order both to pay a portion. Otherwise, a court will look first to the non-custodial parent’s ability to pay for the child’s health insurance. If it is available at a reasonable cost – meaning the cost of coverage does not exceed 5% of that parent’s net monthly income – then a court will require that parent to provide coverage. If health insurance is reasonably available only to the custodial parent, then the custodial parent will have to pay for it.
In situations where neither parent has health coverage, one or both will have to get it to cover the child. In any event, the court will order each parent to pay a share of any uninsured expenses, like deductibles and copayments.
Even with these extra costs, you can still estimate your fair share of support. To help you, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare provides a child support calculator (or child support estimator).
Pennsylvania’s child support estimator can give most parents a good idea of the amount of support. It is not a guaranteed payment, however, and can’t be used where the parents’ combined net monthly income is more than $30,000, or where the non-custodial parent’s monthly net income is less than $867 a month. Also, it does not include deviations from the guidelines (as explained above), calculations for six or more children, or multiple-family situations.
Before you can use the estimator, you will need to do some homework. You need to know both parents’ gross incomes, tax status, spousal support (alimony) paid or received, childcare expenses, medical insurances premiums that cover the child, and any union dues or non-voluntary retirement contributions.
For child support purposes, gross income generally includes salaries, wages, bonuses, and commissions, but also pensions and retirement plans. Even without employment, chances are a parent still has income in the form of social security benefits or unemployment compensation. Among other things, income may also include veteran’s benefits and interest on investments. Rents and net gains from business or dealings in property, count too.
Also, a deadbeat parent can’t avoid paying child support by refusing to work, or even working less. Where a parent is willfully unemployed or underemployed, a court can impute income, meaning, come up with an amount that this parent should be making, based on factors like age, health, employment history, education, and child care responsibilities.
Once a court orders an amount of child support to be paid, the paying parent (called the obligor) must continue to make those payments until the order terminates or a court changes it. A court could hold an obligor who willfully fails to make payments in contempt. The punishment for contempt is a fine up to $1,000, probation, or even jail time, but is intended for those who purposefully avoid support duties. A parent struggling to make payments but who can’t make ends meet may be liable for back payments missed, but should also request a modification in the child support order.
An order for child support is not necessarily set in stone. A court can modify a child support order if either parent experiences a material and substantial change in circumstances. This tends to happen when a parent loses a job, has a new baby, or moves away. Changes like these may be enough to either increase or decrease the amount of support, where little else has changed. The court must, however, review both parents’ current financial resources and any difference in percentage of parenting time to recalibrate the amount of support.
Find more information on family law issues and Pennsylvania laws in our section on Pennsylvania Divorce & Family Laws.
You can find the guidelines and child support estimator on Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare website.
For more on applying for, paying, and enforcement of child support in Pennsylvania, see the Pennsylvania Child Support Handbook.
You can read the law on child support in Title 231 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure Chapter 1910.