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You Lost Your Job - Can you Reduce Your Support Order? by Dustin W. Jones
Frequently Asked Questions about Child Support in Pennsylvania by Dustin W. Jones


You Lost Your Job - Can you Reduce Your Support Order? by Dustin W. Jones

Here is a factual situation which is not atypical:

Mother pays child support to Father, based upon earnings of $100,000 per year. Mother loses her job, and takes a lower paying job earning $50,000. Then she files a Petition to Modify her Support Order.

What are the considerations in a case like this? A recent Superior Court Opinion, Grigoruk v. Grigoruk, 912 A.2d 311(Pa. Super. 2006), sets forth a concise review of the considerations. The Court's discussion includes the following queries which must be resolved:

  • Under Pa.R.C.P. 1910.16-2(d), a party voluntarily accepting a lower paying job is not entitled to a reduction in support. However, if a parent is fired for cause, the court should look to the party's attempt to mitigate the lost income in deciding if a reduction in support should be allowed.
  • The court should look to the factual circumstances to determine if the subsequent job search was sufficient.
  • The court should look at the party's employment immediately prior to the request for modification, and not the highest paying job the parent had 4 years ago.
  • A higher earning capacity may be assigned if the court finds that the reduction in income was the result of a parent's misguided choice.
  • A parent may accept a lower paying job where it was the only job offered after a reasonable search.
  • A parent does not necessarily have an ongoing duty to mitigate the lost income by conducting an ongoing job search. However, this also would be a determination based upon the facts.

In this case, the Superior Court relied upon several other cases to support its position, or to distinguish its position, including: Ewing v. Ewing, 843 A.2d 1282 (Pa. Super. 2004); Novinger v. Smith, 880 A.2d 1255 (Pa. Super. 2005); Woskub v. Woskub, 843 A.2d 1247 (Pa. Super. 2004); Dennis v. Whitney, 844 A.2d 1267 (Pa. Super. 2004); Baehr v. Baehr, 889 A.2d 1240 (Pa. Super. 2005); Samii v. Samii, 847 A.2d 691 (Pa. Super. 2004).

Dustin W. Jones
All Things Pennsylvania Family Law
http://pafamilylaw.net

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Frequently Asked Questions about Child Support in Pennsylvania by Dustin W. Jones

1. How is the amount of a child support order determined? The amount of child support awarded by the court is established in accordance with the Pennsylvania Support Guideline. The Support Guideline was developed on the idea that the child(ren) of separated or divorced parents should receive the same proportion of parental incomes as if the parents were together. The Support Guideline is based on the reasonable needs of the child or spouse seeking support, the ability of the obligor to provide support, and the net incomes and earning capacities of the parties involved.

2. What can I do if I disagree with the child support order when it is established by the court? An order of child support can only be changed by filing an appeal. The appeal must be filed within 10 days of the date the order is issued. The appeal must be filed with the Court of Common Pleas in the county that issued the support order.

3. How do I request a modification of a child support order? A petition to modify the child support order may be filed by either party to a support action if a material change in circumstances has taken place. One example of a material change is the loss or change of income or employment by either party. The Domestic Relations Section (DRS) of your county court is responsible for determining whether or not a material change in circumstances has occurred. To file a Modification Petition, contact the DRS that manages your case, and request a petition for modification, complete the petition and return it to the DRS. The DRS will advise you of its determination and if and when a hearing will occur.

4. How long will I have to pay child support? Pennsylvania law establishes that both parents are liable for the support of their children who are unemancipated and 18 years of age or older. For example, a support obligation may continue for a child who is 18 and still attending high school, one of the parents may file a "Petition for Modification of an Existing Support Order" to request that the child support order be stopped. See Question and Answer #3 for more information. Additionally, there may be other situations, such as the existence of physical or emotional challenges, when parents may be required to pay support for a child who is 18 years of age or older. Arrears remain an outstanding debt until paid in full, regardless of how long that takes. Modification of a support order will not eliminate arrears that accumulated as a result of nonpayment of the support order.

5. What is an income-withholding order? A court order that directs an employer to deduct support from a noncustodial parent's wages.

6. How are income-withholding orders issued? In Pennsylvania, income-withholding is mandatory for all child support orders, except when: (1) the obligor is not behind in payment of support in an amount equal to or more than one month's support payment; and (2) if the court finds that there is good cause not to require immediate income withholding; or (3) a written agreement is reached between the custodial parent and the noncustodial parent, which provides for an alternative arrangement. An income-withholding order is not used for self-employed noncustodial parents. The court will issue a mandatory income-withholding order if arrears accrue in an amount equal to one month's support obligation even if good cause has been shown or there is a written agreement not to impose income-withholding. A petition to modify the child support order may be filed by either party to a support action if a material change in circumstances has taken place. One example of a material change is the loss or change of income or employment by either party. The Domestic Relations Section (DRS) of your county court is responsible for determining whether or not a material change in circumstances has occurred. To file a Modification Petition, contact the DRS that manages your case, and request a petition for modification, complete the petition and return it to the DRS. The DRS will advise you of its determination and if and when a hearing will occur.

7. How long will I have to pay child support? Pennsylvania law establishes that both parents are liable for the support of their children who are unemancipated and 18 years of age or older. For example, a support obligation may continue for a child who is 18 and still attending high school, one of the parents may file a "Petition for Modification of an Existing Support Order" to request that the child support order be stopped. See Question and Answer #3 for more information. Additionally, there may be other situations, such as the existence of physical or emotional challenges, when parents may be required to pay support for a child who is 18 years of age or older. Arrears remain an outstanding debt until paid in full, regardless of how long that takes. Modification of a support order will not eliminate arrears that accumulated as a result of nonpayment of the support order.

8. What is an income-withholding order? A court order that directs an employer to deduct support from a noncustodial parent's wages.

9. How are income-withholding orders issued? In Pennsylvania, income-withholding is mandatory for all child support orders, except when: (1) the obligor is not behind in payment of support in an amount equal to or more than one month's support payment; and (2) if the court finds that there is good cause not to require immediate income withholding; or (3) a written agreement is reached between the custodial parent and the noncustodial parent, which provides for an alternative arrangement. An income-withholding order is not used for self-employed noncustodial parents. The court will issue a mandatory income-withholding order if arrears accrue in an amount equal to one month's support obligation even if good cause has been shown or there is a written agreement not to impose income-withholding.

10. What portion of the noncustodial parent's wages will be withheld? The Consumer Credit Protection Act determines the maximum amount of an individual's net income that is subject to garnishment. These limits are 50 percent for a noncustodial parent who is the head of a second household and 60 percent for a noncustodial parent who is not supporting a second family. These percentages may be increased five percent for payment on arrears owed when the noncustodial parent is behind on support payments 12 weeks or more.

11. How long does it take for income-withholding to begin? In most cases income-withholding orders take effect within 4-6 weeks from the time the income-withholding order is sent to the employer by the court. The noncustodial parent is responsible for making the payments until the income-withholding order takes effect.

12. What can happen if a noncustodial parent does not pay child support? Suspension, non-renewal or denial of a noncustodial parent's driver's license, professional license or recreational license; the interception of lottery winnings and Federal Tax refunds; passport denial; consumer credit bureau reporting; property liens; jail for up to six months, a fine up to $500, or probation for up to six months.

13. What is the Driver's License Suspension Program? Pursuant to Pennsylvania law, county Domestic Relations Sections may issue an order directing the Department of Transportation to prohibit the issuance or renewal of an operator's license or suspend an existing operator's license whenever the noncustodial parent owes support in an amount equal to or greater than three months of the monthly support obligation, and there is no active income-withholding order in place.

14. What is the Federal Tax Refund Offset Program? The Federal Tax Refund Offset Program (FTROP) collects payments of child support from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) income tax refunds of noncustodial parents who owe past due child support. Before a case is submitted to FTROP, Federal Law mandates that: (1) for cases involving cash assistance, the support obligation must be overdue by at least $150 and delinquent for three months; and (2) for other cases, the support obligation must be overdue by at least $500 and the child has not turned 18 years of age.

15. What portion of the noncustodial parent's wages will be withheld? The Consumer Credit Protection Act determines the maximum amount of an individual's net income that is subject to garnishment. These limits are 50 percent for a noncustodial parent who is the head of a second household and 60 percent for a noncustodial parent who is not supporting a second family. These percentages may be increased five percent for payment on arrears owed when the noncustodial parent is behind on support payments 12 weeks or more.

16. How long does it take for income-withholding to begin? In most cases income-withholding orders take effect within 4-6 weeks from the time the income-withholding order is sent to the employer by the court. The noncustodial parent is responsible for making the payments until the income-withholding order takes effect.

17. What can happen if a noncustodial parent does not pay child support? Suspension, non-renewal or denial of a noncustodial parent's driver's license, professional license or recreational license; the interception of lottery winnings and Federal Tax refunds; passport denial; consumer credit bureau reporting; property liens; jail for up to six months, a fine up to $500, or probation for up to six months.

18. What is the Driver's License Suspension Program? Pursuant to Pennsylvania law, county Domestic Relations Sections may issue an order directing the Department of Transportation to prohibit the issuance or renewal of an operator's license or suspend an existing operator's license whenever the noncustodial parent owes support in an amount equal to or greater than three months of the monthly support obligation, and there is no active income-withholding order in place.

19. What is the Federal Tax Refund Offset Program? The Federal Tax Refund Offset Program (FTROP) collects payments of child support from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) income tax refunds of noncustodial parents who owe past due child support. Before a case is submitted to FTROP, Federal Law mandates that: (1) for cases involving cash assistance, the support obligation must be overdue by at least $150 and delinquent for three months; and (2) for other cases, the support obligation must be overdue by at least $500 and the child has not turned 18 years of age.

20. What is the Passport Denial Program? When the total arrears owed exceed $5,000 the noncustodial parent's passport may be denied. The United States Department of State (USDS) will not expedite a passport issuance, even if arrears are paid, unless there's a case of mistaken identity or extraordinary family emergency. Generally it takes about 2-4 weeks for the USDS to reissue a denied passport.

21. What is the Credit Bureau Reporting Program? Pennsylvania law requires county Domestic Relations Sections (DRSs) to provide periodic reports to Consumer Credit Reporting Agencies, whenever the noncustodial parent owes overdue support. Even if the noncustodial parent is making current support payments, the amount of overdue arrears will be reported to consumer credit reporting agencies. he noncustodial parent is notified 20 days in advance by the DRS that arrears will be reported to a credit bureau. A noncustodial parent may contest the accuracy of the information by contacting the county DRS.

22. What is a property lien? The existence of an overdue support obligation creates a lien on any and all real property owned by the noncustodial parent in Pennsylvania. ien information regarding overdue support obligations is available to the general public by contacting the county Domestic Relations Sections.

23. What is the Financial Institution Data Match Program? The Financial Institution Data Match (FIDM) Program is used to identify accounts held by noncustodial parents who owe overdue child support. A financial institution includes any bank, federal or state credit union, insurer, safe deposit company or money market mutual fund authorized to business in Pennsylvania. Once identified, these accounts may be subject to "freezing" and "seizing" by the county Domestic Relations Section (DRS). Accounts that are subject to freeze and seize include: demand deposit accounts, checking accounts or negotiable withdrawal order accounts, savings accounts, time deposit accounts, and money market mutual fund accounts. The financial institution that holds the noncustodial parent's assets will receive a freeze order from the county DRS. The DRS will send a notice to the noncustodial parent that his/her assets have been frozen. The noncustodial parent will have 30 days after the notice was issued to pay the amount of the overdue support in full or contest the notice. The noncustodial parent may contest the notice only on three grounds: First, if no overdue support exists, or there is a mistake in the amount of overdue support. Second, if there is a mistake in the identity of the obligor. Third, if the account is not subject to freeze. Examples of this are when an obligor jointly owns an asset with his or her spouse or when an asset is held in an escrow or trust account in the name of the obligor. For information regarding a freeze or seize action, contact the county DRS that is enforcing the order.

24. What is the Passport Denial Program? When the total arrears owed exceed $5,000 the noncustodial parent's passport may be denied. The United States Department of State (USDS) will not expedite a passport issuance, even if arrears are paid, unless there's a case of mistaken identity or extraordinary family emergency. Generally it takes about 2-4 weeks for the USDS to reissue a denied passport.

25. What is the Credit Bureau Reporting Program? Pennsylvania law requires county Domestic Relations Sections (DRSs) to provide periodic reports to Consumer Credit Reporting Agencies, whenever the noncustodial parent owes overdue support. Even if the noncustodial parent is making current support payments, the amount of overdue arrears will be reported to consumer credit reporting agencies. he noncustodial parent is notified 20 days in advance by the DRS that arrears will be reported to a credit bureau. A noncustodial parent may contest the accuracy of the information by contacting the county DRS.

26. What is a property lien? The existence of an overdue support obligation creates a lien on any and all real property owned by the noncustodial parent in Pennsylvania. ien information regarding overdue support obligations is available to the general public by contacting the county Domestic Relations Sections.

27. What is the Financial Institution Data Match Program? The Financial Institution Data Match (FIDM) Program is used to identify accounts held by noncustodial parents who owe overdue child support. A financial institution includes any bank, federal or state credit union, insurer, safe deposit company or money market mutual fund authorized to business in Pennsylvania. Once identified, these accounts may be subject to "freezing" and "seizing" by the county Domestic Relations Section (DRS). Accounts that are subject to freeze and seize include: demand deposit accounts, checking accounts or negotiable withdrawal order accounts, savings accounts, time deposit accounts, and money market mutual fund accounts. The financial institution that holds the noncustodial parent's assets will receive a freeze order from the county DRS. The DRS will send a notice to the noncustodial parent that his/her assets have been frozen. The noncustodial parent will have 30 days after the notice! was issued to pay the amount of the overdue support in full or contest the notice. The noncustodial parent may contest the notice only on three grounds: First, if no overdue support exists, or there is a mistake in the amount of overdue support. Second, if there is a mistake in the identity of the obligor. Third, if the account is not subject to freeze. Examples of this are when an obligor jointly owns an asset with his or her spouse or when an asset is held in an escrow or trust account in the name of the obligor. For information regarding a freeze or seize action, contact the county DRS that is enforcing the order.

28. What is the State Tax Refund Offset Program? The State Tax Refund Offset Program (STROP) collects payments of overdue support from Pennsylvania state income tax refunds. STROP is used when an obligor (noncustodial parent or parent obligated to pay support) owes an amount equal to or greater than $11 in overdue support. Before a case is submitted to STROP, a preoffset notice is sent to the obligor. The notice gives advance warning of the enforcement action. The notice tells the obligor that because he owes overdue support, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue (DOR) will be asked to hold the amount of the obligor's State income tax refund available to pay off overdue support. To stop a state income tax refund from being taken, the notice informs the obligor how to appeal. The obligor should contact his local Domestic Relations Section (DRS) in writing or by personal appearance within 10 days from the date of the notice to request an administrative review. The DRS !\n will notify the obligor of the time and place of the administrative review. If no review is requested or the contest is lost, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) will tell DOR to intercept any state income tax refund equal to or greater than $11 that is owed to the delinquent support obligor. The amount requested for collection will be equal to the total amount of overdue support owed by the obligor in all support cases enforced by Pennsylvania's child support enforcement program. The money will be sent to DPW for distribution.

29. Who will handle my case in the other state? The establishment of a child support order, or the enforcement of a child support order, will be handled by the Child Support Enforcement Agency in the noncustodial parent's state of residence. The Pennsylvania Domestic Relations Section in the county of residence of the custodial parent will serve as the custodial parent's point of contact with the other state.

30. What is the State Tax Refund Offset Program? The State Tax Refund Offset Program (STROP) collects payments of overdue support from Pennsylvania state income tax refunds. STROP is used when an obligor (noncustodial parent or parent obligated to pay support) owes an amount equal to or greater than $11 in overdue support. Before a case is submitted to STROP, a preoffset notice is sent to the obligor. The notice gives advance warning of the enforcement action. The notice tells the obligor that because he owes overdue support, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue (DOR) will be asked to hold the amount of the obligor's State income tax refund available to pay off overdue support. To stop a state income tax refund from being taken, the notice informs the obligor how to appeal. The obligor should contact his local Domestic Relations Section (DRS) in writing or by personal appearance within 10 days from the date of the notice to request an administrative review. The DRS ! will notify the obligor of the time and place of the administrative review. If no review is requested or the contest is lost, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) will tell DOR to intercept any state income tax refund equal to or greater than $11 that is owed to the delinquent support obligor. The amount requested for collection will be equal to the total amount of overdue support owed by the obligor in all support cases enforced by Pennsylvania's child support enforcement program. The money will be sent to DPW for distribution.

31. Who will handle my case in the other state? The establishment of a child support order, or the enforcement of a child support order, will be handled by the Child Support Enforcement Agency in the noncustodial parent's state of residence. The Pennsylvania Domestic Relations Section in the county of residence of the custodial parent will serve as the custodial parent's point of contact with the other state.

32. How is a child support order established in another state? The Domestic Relations Section in the county of residence of the custodial parent will ask the custodial parent to provide information needed to complete the necessary documents that will be sent to the noncustodial parent's resident state to establish a child support order. The noncustodial parent's resident state will then use this information to establish a court order of support.

33. What happens if a child support obligation is not paid by the noncustodial parent living in another state? The Child Support Enforcement Agency in the noncustodial parent's resident state will use the enforcement methods available in that states' child support laws, many of which are similar to Pennsylvania Law. The custodial parent should notify the Domestic Relations Section when the support order is not being paid.

34. Based on rules set by Pennsylvania and Federal law, when payments are received, how is the money divided up for support, arrears, and fees? The payment is first applied to current support, and money remaining is applied to arrears, and fees are paid last.

35. If the noncustodial parent has more than one child support order, and collections from income-withholding are not sufficient to meet all child support obligations, how are the collections distributed? The Pennsylvania Child support Enforcement System (PACSES) has a record of the monthly support obligation (MSO) on every support case. PACSES is programmed to distribute a monthly support payment to every recorded case, even when one person's payment must be applied to multiple cases. If the MSO for each case is not the same, and the support payment is less than the total of all MSOs, PACSES prorates the payment so that each of the child support obligations receive a share of the payment, based on the amount of the MSO. In this situation, the amount of the payment distributed to a child support obligation may not equal the full amount of the child support order depending upon how much the obligor pays. If the obligor makes a payment in an effort to be paid ahead on his/his child support obligation, the payment will be applied to any existing child support arrears. If child support arrears are owed to the custodial parent, the extra payment will be applied to those arrears; if the arrears are owed to the Department of Public Welfare (DPW), and no arrears exist for the custodial parent, the payment will be applied to the DPW arrears. The Domestic Relations Section in the county of residence of the custodial parent will ask the custodial parent to provide information needed to complete the necessary documents that will be sent to the noncustodial parent's resident state to establish a child support order. The noncustodial parent's resident state will then use this information to establish a court order of support.

36. What happens if a child support obligation is not paid by the noncustodial parent living in another state? The Child Support Enforcement Agency in the noncustodial parent's resident state will use the enforcement methods available in that states' child support laws, many of which are similar to Pennsylvania Law. The custodial parent should notify the Domestic Relations Section when the support order is not being paid.

37. Based on rules set by Pennsylvania and Federal law, when payments are received, how is the money divided up for support, arrears, and fees? The payment is first applied to current support, and money remaining is applied to arrears, and fees are paid last.

38. If the noncustodial parent has more than one child support order, and collections from income-withholding are not sufficient to meet all child support obligations, how are the collections distributed? The Pennsylvania Child support Enforcement System (PACSES) has a record of the monthly support obligation (MSO) on every support case. PACSES is programmed to distribute a monthly support payment to every recorded case, even when one person's payment must be applied to multiple cases. If the MSO for each case is not the same, and the support payment is less than the total of all MSOs, PACSES prorates the payment so that each of the child support obligations receive a share of the payment, based on the amount of the MSO. In this situation, the amount of the payment distributed to a child support obligation may not equal the full amount of the child support order depending upon how much the obligor pays. If the obligor makes a payment in an effort to be paid ahead on her/his child support obligation, the payment will be applied to any existing child support arrears. If child support arrears are owed to the custodial parent, the extra payment will be applied to those arrears; if the arrears are owed to the Department of Public Welfare (DPW), and no arrears exist for the custodial parent, the payment will be applied to the DPW arrears.

39. What is the Governor's Fatherhood Initiative Program? The Governor's Fatherhood Initiative Program was created to help fathers who are absent from the home to become better, more responsible parents and to remind fathers and mothers of the importance of the father in the lives of their children, not just financially, but in all aspects of parenthood.

40. I am a noncustodial parent, are there any groups that specialize in helping me? There are numerous organizations found on the Internet, both profit and non-profit, that are listed under "Fathers Rights" and they may be able to help.

41. What if my address changes? Report any address change to the county Domestic Relations Section that manages your child support case.

42. What if I change jobs? Report any changes in employment to the county Domestic Relations Section that manages your child support case.

43. How does the Domestic Relations Section locate a noncustodial parent? The Domestic Relations Section will submit the noncustodial parent's name, and other identifying information to the State Parent Locate System, and the Federal Parent Locate System. These two systems will make a check of various computer databases used by Federal and State agencies. If a match takes place, the information is then reported back to the Domestic Relations Section. However the best source of information is often the custodial and the noncustodial parent. The parties to the support action should maintain contact with the DRS managing the case to report relevant information that may assist the DRS in obtaining location and employment information.

44. What can I do if I disagree with a custody or visitation order? The involvement of both parents in the lives of their children is an important issue. In the case of divorced or separated parents, the issues associated with custody and visitation complicate this involvement. Issues involving custody are resolved solely by the Pennsylvania courts. The appeal process represents the proper forum to present arguments of why you believe the court may have acted improperly in making a determination in your case. In December 1997, Governor Ridge signed into law Act 58 of 1997. This new law established penalties for noncompliance by a custodial parent with a partial custody or visitation order. The custodial parent who does not comply with an order of partial custody or visitation may be adjudged in contempt of court. Contempt is punishable by imprisonment of up to six months, a fine of $500, probation for a period not to exceed six months, and suspension, denial or non-ren newal of driving privileges. The court may impose any one or all of these penalties.

45. What is the Governor's Fatherhood Initiative Program? The Governor's Fatherhood Initiative Program was created to help fathers who are absent from the home to become better, more responsible parents and to remind fathers and mothers of the importance of the father in the lives of their children, not just financially, but in all aspects of parenthood.

46. I am a noncustodial parent, are there any groups that specialize in helping me? There are numerous organizations found on the Internet, both profit and non-profit, that are listed under "Fathers Rights" and they may be able to help.

Dustin W. Jones
All Things Pennsylvania Family Law
http://pafamilylaw.net

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