Written by Kevin J. Handy
Most divorces involve couples with children. Virtually all of these divorces will be impacted by child support issues. If you are divorcing in Bucks County, PA, it is important to have a general understanding of how child support works, how it is decided, and the factors that will influence it to your advantage or disadvantage. Below are the top 11 ways that Bucks County Child Support may affect your divorce:
1. In general, the party who has the most overnights with the children will be entitled to child support.
In Pennsylvania, the party that pays child support and the party that receives child support depend on the physical custody schedule of the children. The party that has primary physical custody of a child (meaning he or she has over 50% of the overnights with the child) will be entitled to receive child support from the other party, irrespective of the parties’ relative incomes. However, if the parties share physical custody of a child equally, then the party earning less money (or with a lower earning capacity) will be entitled to receive child support.
2. Child support in Pennsylvania is based a formula.
Absent extraordinary circumstances, child support in Pennsylvania is calculated based on a statutory formula. That formula is primarily affected by four factors. Those four factors are (i) the overnight custodial schedule, (ii) the number of children covered by the child support order, (iii) the monthly after-tax incomes or earning capacities of the parties, and (iv) certain additional expenses related to the children, including health insurance and mortgage payments. Most disputes over child support involve the parties’ earnings or earning capacities.
3. The Pennsylvania child support formula frequently causes custody disputes.
Because the child support formula is based partly on custodial overnights, the support law indirectly causes custody disputes. Parents will frequently fight for more custodial time simply to obtain a reduction in child support. For example, if a parent has five overnights out of every two weeks (about 35% of the time with the children), that parent will have to pay child support and will get no discount. However, if that same parent has six overnights out of every two weeks (about 43% of the time), they will get a discount on child support.
For that reason, parents will frequently fight vehemently over a single overnight simply to save on child support. Similarly, parents will fight over primary custody simply to receive or avoid child support.
4. Expect to spend a lot of time and money fighting over child support.
Nothing seems to cause as much angst having to pay an ex-spouse money. Combine that with the fact that many of the factors used in the formula are variable (for example, what someone’s earning capacity should be), that people frequently change jobs, that incomes change, and that custody schedules change, and you have a recipe for frequent litigation. Most people involved in child support cases are back in court every one to two years, fighting for support modifications. It can consume a lot of time and money.
5. You will feel that you are either paying too much child support or getting too little child support.
Once a child support number is established, the payor inevitably feels he or she is paying too much. The payee inevitably feels he or she is receiving too little. Everyone is unhappy. Divorce takes its toll on all involved, and raising children outside of a two-income household can have serious financial effects.
6. You will still have to pay for “extras”.
Support rarely covers all the costs for raising a child. Even after a child support number is established, you will have to pay for “extras.” By that we mean costs associated with sports, clothing, dance classes, summer camp, Halloween costumes, birthday parties, vacations – costs that do not necessarily occur to parents while they are sitting in court. Sometimes the parent who is receiving support believes the other parent should contribute to these expenses, in addition to the support. Other times, it’s the parent who is paying child support who thinks the recipient of child support should have to pay for everything out of the support sum.
Bottom line? If you want something for your child, you are probably going to have to pay for it yourself, unless you can come to an agreement with your ex-spouse. If you cannot, these extra costs will have to be factored into your budget.
7. Child support can make your divorce seem never-ending.
Life is full of events that can affect your child support. There are changes in employment, changes in custodial schedules as the kids age, changes in the needs of children. The result is that child support ends up being a never-ending battle. In Pennsylvania, child support is always modifiable. That means your ex-spouse can take you back to court on a whim just to rehash this issue. The court will even write to you every three years to suggest that a modification of child support may be warranted. This means that you are likely to face continuous litigation even if your divorce is otherwise “final.”
One factor that makes support final is “emancipation.” That is when a child ages out of the support system, usually when he or she turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever occurs later. Still, support will be owed for each of the children not yet emancipated.
8. Child support cannot be waived, which can affect any divorce settlement you reach with your spouse.
People going through divorce will often ask if they can avoid paying their spouse child support, or at least if the amount can be fixed. Couples will attempt to include provisions in their marital property settlement agreement either waiving child support or fixing it at a certain level. There are almost always trade-offs for such provisions. Often, the custodial parent will receive more cash or property up-front as part of this arrangement.
Under Pennsylvania law, however, agreements to waive or fix child support are unenforceable. The result is that agreements not to seek child support prove to be worthless. It is essential to negotiate your marital settlement agreement with this in mind, and avoid trading off benefits you will otherwise not be able to reclaim for child support provisions that could be disputed at any time.
9. Child support affects alimony calculations.
If there is a child support order in a divorce, the amount of support payable will affect the amount of alimony payable. As a result, changes in child support affect the amount of alimony payable. And, as stated above, the amount of child support payable frequently changes over time. As a result, the interrelationship of child support and alimony, and the expected duration of the support orders, needs to be carefully considered when negotiating a marital settlement agreement.
10. The person receiving child support may receive more property in equitable distribution.
One of the factors in dividing marital property in Pennsylvania is whether one party will be serving as the custodian of minor children. Because, practically speaking, this will be the same person as the party receiving child support, the result is that the party receiving child support will also likely be awarded more of the marital estate. The theory behind this is that the person raising the couple’s minor children for most of the time will likely need additional resources to support those children.
11. You should considering including a provision for the payment of college tuition and expenses in your property settlement agreement.
Child support in other states, like New Jersey, can include an obligation to pay for children’s college tuition and expenses. There is no such obligation in Pennsylvania (for a list of states and their respective laws follow this link). Therefore, if you want your spouse legally “on the hook” for some portion of your children’s college tuition, you will need to include such a provision in your martial settlement agreement.
However, I always advise my clients against agreeing to any such provision, because it is impossible to predict what their situation will be when it is time to pay for tuition. They may be out of a job, estranged from their child, or faced with other circumstances that, in retrospect, would make such an agreement unwise or unwarranted. This is not to say that parents shouldn’t help their children with college expenses. It’s just not prudent to agree to do so in advance.