ESTABLISHING SUPPORT OBLIGATIONS
Before attending your first support conference, please take a few minutes to read the following. The information may help you better understand how support conferences are conducted and what your rights and obligations are regarding the outcome of the conference.
PURPOSE OF THE CONFERENCE
To help parents come to a fair agreement on support for their children. Parents often experience anxiety, frustration, fear and trauma as a result of separation. While we are not insensitive to this, our purpose is specifically limited to achieving financial stability for the children, not in determining who is to blame for the separation.
Conferences are assigned alphabetically by defendant last name to facilitate similar Family Court judge assignments. Neither party nor their counsel nor any DRS employee may choose who will hear a case. On the other hand, Conference Officers are expected to avoid presiding over cases in which they have a known conflict of interest.
Both plaintiffs and defendants may make application to testify at a conference or de novo hearing if they are unable to attend in person. Approval to testify by phone is contingent upon the DRS receiving the application with required documents at least 10 days prior to the scheduled conference or de novo hearing.
Though Officers often have wage statements provided by employers, or pay stubs or tax forms provided by the parties to guide them, Civil Procedural rules allow you to present a statement of your extraordinary expenses which becomes a part of the official court record. Current guidelines in use throughout the state are designed to statistically include normal living expenses. Additionally, as appropriate, we may ask you for childcare costs, and clearly documented unreimbursed medical expenses. Allowable deductions are federal, state, and local income taxes, FICA payments, non-voluntary retirement payments, union dues, and alimony paid to the other party.
The Income Shares support guideline model is used throughout the state as well as in the majority of states nationwide. It calculates the amount of support needed by the child or children based statistically on the combined income of the parents. It then prorates each parent’s share of the child’s or children’s support based upon their relative incomes. The non-custodial parent pays over his or her share to the custodial parent as partial support of the child or children.
For example, if the guidelines indicate a child’s monthly support need to be $500 and the non-custodial parent earns 60% of the combined incomes of both parents, the non-custodial parent will pay over $300 per month in support to the custodial parent who is expected to cover the remaining $200. The Officer is able to print out the computation for you, showing each party’s proportionate share of the support obligation.
EFFECT OF PUBLIC ASSISTANCE AND SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS
Neither public assistance nor Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is considered income for the purpose of determining support. However, if a child receives retirement or disability benefits due to a parent’s age or disability, those benefits affect the support calculation. Those benefits are added to the parents’ combined income to determine the child’s share, then subtracted from the child’s share prior to determining each parent’s proportional share.
VOLUNTARY REDUCTION OF INCOME
Voluntary reduction in income, including taking a lower paying job, quitting work, being fired for cause, or being convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment, will generally have no effect on the support obligation. A party who willfully fails to find appropriate employment will be considered to have income equal to the party’s earning capacity, taking into account age, education, training, health, work experience, earnings history and child care responsibilities. This applies to custodial parents as well when the child or children are old enough to be in school full time.
The addition of children to a payor’s obligation--including children within his or her current, intact family--are not a basis for a modification unless and until the combined obligations exceed 50% of the payor’s net monthly income. If that occurs, the court may consider a proportional reduction of each obligation.
CONSENT ORDER OR RECOMMENDED ORDER?
Agreement between the parties is a desirable outcome, and ample opportunity will be given to allow the parties to reach an agreement. Where welfare is not at issue, parties may consent to an order, which may or may not follow the guidelines. In a welfare case, a Child Support Advocate has the authority to enter into an agreement for a non-guideline order. Otherwise the Officer is compelled to adhere to the Guidelines. Entering into an agreement is a voluntary action by the signing parties. You may not request a de novo hearing after entry of a Consent Order. If the parties cannot agree on an appropriate order of support, the Conference Officer will recommend an interim support order to the Court. Either party has twenty (20) days from the date shown on the lower right hand corner of the order to request a hearing de novo before the Support Hearing Master. This must be done in writing to this office and must be accompanied by a filing fee of $50 in the form of cash (over the counter only), certified check, or money order. Fees are non-refundable, even if the request is withdrawn. If a request for a de novo hearing is not made within the twenty days, the interim order becomes final.
DE NOVO HEARING
Westmoreland County follows a three tier system for support cases. After the conference held in Domestic Relations, the parties will be mailed an Interim Order which sets forth an amount for support. Upon receipt of this Order either party may submit in writing, along with a Fifty Dollar ($50.00) fee, a demand for a further hearing. This demand must be made within twenty (20) days after the date of the Order. This hearing is referred to as a de novo hearing.
Domestic Relations, upon receipt of this request, will schedule an evidentiary hearing before a Hearing Officer. Both parties are required to attend this hearing and must bring with them verification of their last six months of earnings, their latest Federal tax return, any child care expense or any other extraordinary expense. The Hearing Officer will conduct an evidentiary hearing and, based upon the evidence presented, issue a Recommendation which will be forwarded to the Judge for acceptance. The Judge will sign an Order on the Recommendation, and both the Recommendation and Order will be forwarded to the parties.
Upon receipt of this Recommendation and Order, either party, within ten (10) days of the date of this Order, may file written exceptions. Written exceptions are filed in Domestic Relations and must be accompanied by a Fifty ($50.00) fee which is a deposit for the transcript of the evidentiary hearing. A standardized form, available at Domestic Relations, must also be filled out. The Fifty ($50.00) fee goes towards price of the transcript of the evidentiary hearing and will cover the first twenty five (25) pages. If the transcript exceeds twenty five (25) pages you will be responsible for the additional cost at a rate of two dollars ($2.00) per page. Upon receipt of these items an Oral argument will be set up before a Judge. Once the transcript is received and the oral argument is set up, both parties are responsible to file prior to the argument, written legal briefs to support their position. After the oral argument the Judge will issue a Final Order.
EFFECTIVE DATE OF THE ORDER
Unless by mutual consent or court order, support orders are generally effective back to the date the complaint or petition was filed. Since most conferences take place approximately four weeks after the filing of the Complaint for Support, longer if there is difficulty in service or there are continuances, the non-custodial parent typically begins with a debt of a month or more of support.
ENTITLEMENT TO SPOUSAL SUPPORT
Unlike child support, the right of support for a spouse may be contested. If contested, the Conference Officer will listen to the arguments and enter an appropriate interim order. In determining the amount of spousal support, the Officer will deduct from the payer’s monthly net income all of his or her support obligations and any amounts of spousal support, alimony pendent elite, or alimony paid to former spouses. Either party has 10 days to request a de novo hearing.
Establishment and enforcement of custody are not within the authority of the Domestic Relations Conference Officer. Custody orders issued by the Family Court can directly affect the terms of support. For example, if the child or children spend 40% or more time with the non-custodial parent, an adjustment can be made to the non-custodial parent’s percentage share of support.
As a customer of the Domestic Relations Section of the Court of Common Pleas in Westmoreland County you have a right to ask the Conference Officer to explain more fully any of the above items. Though you may not get the order you wanted, it is important that you understand the process as well as the legal and practical limitations under which Conference Officers work.