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.


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.