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Why is Pennsylvania Child Support Based on Income, Without Considering Expenses?

As a child support lawyer, I am frequently asked why the Pennsylvania child support guidelines don't consider a parent's expenses. Sometimes paying child support makes a parent "see red" on their checking account statement. Some parents experience budget deficits when they have to add child support to the list of bills they pay each month. And the court doesn't seem to care. What gives?

The child support guidelines do not generally consider expenses. That's because each parent's willingness to spend money is different. Two parents with the same income might have very different spending habits. It would be unfair to reward parents who overspend with higher child support than those who are frugal. Our child support laws wouldn’t produce consistent, predictable results if child support were based on spending.

In the 80's the Pennsylvania courts implemented uniform child support guidelines, the "formulas" that are used to calculate child support. The child support guidelines are income-driven, with almost no consideration of the expenses or needs of the parents or the child. The guidelines were enacted to create uniformity and consistency, or in the words of the law, to ensure that similarly-situated people are treated equally. Everyone with the same income level should pay the same child support. The guidelines also help to reduce litigation by making child support results predictable. Reducing litigation eases the burden on overcrowded family courts. So the guidelines help parents and their child support lawyers to settle cases, confident that they can match the outcome of a child support hearing.

The Pennsylvania child support guidelines were developed (and are updated every few years) under the Income Shares model. The Income Shares model is a survey of in-tact families, to determine what percentage of their income is spent on the basic necessities (housing, food, clothing). The Income Shares model tells us how much a typical family spends on their children at each income level; that's how the basic child support is determined. The child support guidelines are calculated to match the same percentage or dollar amount of family income that an intact family would spend on each child.

Some parents have asked me whether it is possible to be sure that child support is being used for the benefit of the children. In other words, can we demand an accounting, or set up an escrow account to monitor the use of child support funds? The answer is no. Our child support laws do not contain any mechanism to monitor the use of child support payments, and our courts have been unwilling to scrutinize a parent’s checkbook. A parent who receives child support is free to spend the money any way they wish.

Basic child support doesn't include health insurance premiums, medical and dental expenses, child care, private school tuition, summer camp fees or extracurricular activities, because those expenses were never considered in the Income Shares survey. Maybe someday, someone will study how much in-tact families spend on these expenses, so that the courts will know how much divorced or unmarried parents should pay. But for now, those expenses are allocated in proportion to the parents’ respective incomes and added to the basic child support obligation. When those expenses are added to the basic child support, it can result in dramatic increases, especially when parents don’t have health insurance available through their employment, or the children have special medical needs.

The court also has discretion to adjust the child support if necessary to avoid a hardship to either parent. This is where expenses come into play, and the key word is “discretion.” If a parent can convince the court that he or she cannot pay the full amount of child support, or the guideline amount isn’t enough, the court might adjust the amount downward or upward. A parent must prove that the need is not self-imposed or irresponsible. This is one area where clear and convincing evidence makes all the difference. Expenses aren’t completely ignored in a child support case, but they are secondary, something to be considered after the basic child support and add-ons are determined.

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