In Pennsylvania, all parents have a financial duty to support their children. A Pennsylvania child support order requires one parent to make a monthly payment 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”) typically receives child support parents from the parent with less parent time (called the “noncustodial parent”). Pennsylvania child support laws assume that the custodial parent already spends money directly on the child.
A child support award is based on Pennsylvania child support guidelines. See 231 Pa. Code Rule 1910.16-4 (2020). 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, decrease or increase the amount of child support—based on the following facto
While these factors may support an adjustment up or down of the payment amount, there are still other expenses that impact support payments. For example, parents remain responsible for the cost of childcare, private school, and the child’s health insurance.
Where parents share custody and either could cover the child’s health insurance, the court could make one or both parents pay for the child’s health insurance. Often, a court will order a non-custodial to pay for the child’s health insurance if it is available at a reasonable cost (where the cost of coverage doesn’t exceed 5% of that parent’s net monthly income). 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 Pennsylvania child support calculator.
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 child support payments for a disabled child to continue past the child’s 18th birthday. Also, one or both parents could be on the hook to cover the child’s undergraduate or vocational expenses after high school.
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'll 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 childcare responsibilities.
Once you’ve established a child support order, you’ll need to collect support from the other parent. The parent responsible for paying child support (also called the “obligor”) can make child support payments by cash, check, direct deposit, wire transfer, Venmo or Zelle.
Payments are due on time each month, until the court order is changed. This means it doesn’t matter if your spouse had some major expenses, child support still must be paid. If you’re having trouble collecting child support, contact the Pennsylvania Child Support Program for help. 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.
There is no tax credit for paying child support. Also, the parent who receives child support does not need to count it as income for tax purposes because child support belongs to the child. However, a parent who fails to pay child support can end up having child support arrears (past due and owing child support) deducted from his or her tax refund.
The parent who pays child support won’t automatically get to claim the child dependent deduction. More often a court will order parents to share the deduction by claiming it in opposite years. Sometimes, a court will order that the custodial parent or the lower-earning parent receive the dependent deduction or child tax credit.
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 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 relocates internationally. 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.