The Individualized Nature of Child Support

So often I hear how a particular outcome in a custody, divorce or support matter is “unfair” because my client “knows a guy” who didn’t have to give up as much or got a better custody arrangement or had a significantly different support order.  A client will often compare her situation to a relative, a friend or a co-worker and wonder why things turn out differently for her.  As attorneys, we try to give clients the best advice given the circumstances of each client’s situation, but that will not necessarily be the same as your sister, friend or coworker.  This series of blog posts will attempt to shed some light onto some of the reasons for the differing outcomes in family law cases.

Support

Perhaps the most common “but I know a guy” conversation I have is in child and spousal support situations.  Support calculations/orders are extremely individualized as they deal with the parties’ incomes, above all else.  The legislature has dictated how a support obligation is to be calculated.  Most simply, the monthly incomes of the parties are combined (with some deductions for income taxes and other variables).  The legislature has assigned a basic support obligation based on the parties’ combined net income and the number of children to be supported.  This basic support obligation amount is found in a chart in Rule 1910.16-3 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure.  Once the number on that chart is identified, a percentage of that number is assigned to each party as their monthly contribution toward the support of the child(ren).  Then, typically the non-custodial parent, will pay his or her percentage to the other party. 

The method of calculation outlined above occurs in situations where the parties have defined incomes and no circumstances which may warrant a change from the support amount in Rule 1910.16-3.  However, this is not often the case.  Custodial arrangement, childcare costs, private school tuition and medical insurance costs often result in adjustments of the calculation of support amount.  For example, the parent who pays the health insurance for the child(ren) will get “credit” for that payment, either in an increased child support payment (if the health insurance is paid by the parent who receives the support) or in a decrease in the child support payment (if the health insurance is paid by the parent who pays the support).

Additionally, Rule 1910.16-5(b) provides several ways that a court may deviate from the support calculation.  Some of the deviations that may be considered by a court include:

  1. Unusual needs and unusual fixed obligations of the parties;
  2. Other income in the household;
  3. Any other support obligations of the parties.

These deviations are at the discretion of the court and the court may decide to make a slight, large or no deviation from the calculation.  These deviations are separate from the adjustments that are discussed above (i.e. childcare, tuition, custodial arrangement).

In addition to deviations and adjustments, there are a few other circumstances that can change a support amount.  Sometimes, for example, one party argues that the income of the other is not up to his or her potential, given that party’s education or past work history.  If that is persuasive, the court can assign an earning capacity to that party which is higher than his or her actual earnings. 

The situations mentioned in this post are only a few of those that can be argued in a support matter.  The Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure, which largely govern support matters, provide much information for the calculation of a support obligation and potential for deviation from that basic support obligation.  Family law attorneys are typically well versed in these matters and can advise clients on what potential deviations or factors may affect a child or spousal support order.

How Custody Factors can affect a Custody Schedule

So often I hear how a particular outcome in a custody, divorce or support matter is “unfair” because my client “knows a guy” who didn’t have to give up as much or got a better custody arrangement or had a significantly different support order.  A client will often compare her situation to a relative, a friend or a co-worker and wonder why things turn out differently for her.  As attorneys, we try to give clients the best advice given the circumstances of each client’s situation, but that will not necessarily be the same as your sister, friend or coworker.  This series of blog posts will attempt to shed some light onto some of the reasons for the differing outcomes in family law cases.

Custody

The legislature has outlined the factors that are required to be considered in a making a decision in a custody case.  There are a total of 15 concrete factors and a 16th which allows the judge to consider “any other relevant factor.”  Those factors, listed at 23 Pa.C.S.A. 5328 include the following: which party is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between the child and another party, the need for stability and continuity in the child’s education, family life and community life and which party is more likely to maintain a loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship with the child adequate for the child’s emotional needs, and others.  Parents (or grandparents) in a custody action often point to one specific trait or issue of the other parent in defense of why that other parent should get no or minimal custodial time with the child.  However, typically no one factor is going to make the determination.  The law requires that all the factors (if applicable to the particular case) be weighed and considered in making a custody determination.  In other words, the fact that the other parent has three DUI's from 5 years ago or has a spotty work history or has a had multiple boyfriends and residences in the past 2 years may be persuasive, but are not the sole issues that a judge will consider. 

 In looking at these factors, the court is guided by the singular principle of custody law – doing what is in the “best interest of the child.”  While the legislature provided guidance in making this decision in creating the list of factors discussed above, ultimately it is up to the judge to weigh which factor or factors are most persuasive given the circumstances of your specific situation.  As in most areas of family law, there are exceptions to every rule and each situation is different, though on the surface it may appear the same. 

An example of the individualized nature of these decisions lies within one of the factors listed in section 5328 is “the well-reasoned preference of the child, based on the child’s maturity and judgment”.   Under the law, the child does not get to decide where he/she lives.  The age, maturity level and intellect of the child will often affect how much weight will be given to his/her preference, provided the child’s preference is “well-reasoned.”  However, there is no magic age, grade level or I.Q. where the child’s preference automatically rules the outcome.  Like all other factors, this is just one that the judge must consider and weigh among and against all of the other factors.

An experienced attorney, in preparing a custody case, will ensure that all relevant factors listed in section 5328 are presented to the judge, allowing the judge to make a reasoned and informed decision.  Remember that, generally, the only information a judge has about your situation is what is presented to him or her during the custody hearing.  If the judge does not have the evidence to consider on a particular factor, the judge cannot utilize that factor in making his or her decision and it could result in an undesirable ruling.