Once a support complaint has been "filed" (which means the paperwork is completed and officially recorded), both parties will receive "conference notices" (an official order by the court to attend the conference). On the day of the conference you should report to Domestic Relations at least fifteen minutes before the scheduled time of your conference, bringing with you the information you were directed to bring (see below). When both parties have reported to the receptionist that they have arrived, your case will be heard. Depending upon individual circumstances, even if one party fails to appear, the case may proceed. (See "If Only One Party Appears") The conference may last up to one hour.
Things to Bring to the Conference
Both parties will be ordered to bring their previous year’s income tax returns and payroll stubs for the past six months. They should also bring medical insurance cards, insurance policy numbers, benefits booklets, and any other things that will help the officer make the best decision. Self-employed people must bring business records and financial statements. People who receive unemployment or worker’s compensation disability or pension benefits must bring proof of the amount they receive. Please do not bring children to the conference unless paternity of the child needs to be established.
What Happens at the Conference
A Domestic Relations conference officer will guide you through the conference. The purpose of the conference is to give the parties an opportunity to decide what amount and what type of support will be paid. The conference officer will use the income information which the parties and their employers have provided to determine the net (after taxes) income of each party. The amount of support each party may be required to pay is based mostly on both parties' net monthly incomes, how much each is capable of earning, and/or reasonable needs.
In Pennsylvania, support amounts are determined by using written support guidelines, which are the same in the whole Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Click here to get a copy of the Pennsylvania Support Guidelines. Copies of the guidelines are also available from the Domestic Relations office at a minimal cost, or can be found in the Mifflin County Law Library, located on the 3rd floor of the Court House.
Although guidelines are used to determine the support amount, every case is also affected by individual circumstances. Some of the items which may be considered in deciding a support amount are:
1. MONTHLY NET INCOME - This is determined by averaging the monthly gross income (before taxes) over a six month period (when possible), and subtracting from it the mandatory (must be taken) deductions. Monthly gross income includes overtime, tips, bonuses and commissions. Federal, state, and local taxes, social security deductions, medical insurance costs that benefit the children and other spouse, mandatory retirement contributions and union dues are subtracted from gross income to arrive at the net monthly income.
2. FLUCTUATING (CHANGING) INCOME - Adjustments in support orders will not be made for normal changes in earnings. Support orders for seasonal employees such as construction workers, are ordinarily based on an average of one year’s earnings.
3. EARNING CAPACITY - In certain circumstances, if a party who is able to work chooses on his or her own a lower paying job or fails to work at all, he or she will be considered to have an income equal to his/her earning potential. This also may be true when a party voluntarily (on his or her own) quits work or is fired for misconduct.
4. RETROACTIVE EFFECT - Support orders are usually made retroactive (go back) to the date that the support complaint is filed. Credit may be given for voluntary payments made between the filing date and the date of the support order. Proof may be required to show that these voluntary payments were made. Therefore, it is suggested that any voluntary payments be made by check. The court will decide the retroactive arrears (amount of back support owed) and require a payment on the arrears in addition to the payment of the regular support amount.
5. DEVIATION (ADJUSTMENT) - The guideline figures may be adjusted for circumstances such as unusually high fixed bills, the age of the children, a duty to support other children and/or spouse, etc.
6. MORTGAGE PAYMENT - The guidelines assume that the spouse who is living in the marital residence (the family home) will be solely responsible for the mortgage payment, real estate taxes and homeowner’s insurance. The support order is based on this belief, unless it actually states otherwise. Therefore, if the party who is NOT living in the home is paying the mortgage, real estate taxes or insurance, and is found to owe support to the party who is living in the home, credit may be given for paying those expenses.
7. CHILD CARE EXPENSES – Reasonable child care costs are the responsibility of both parents. The guidelines provide that child care expenses be divided proportionately between the parties based upon their incomes.
8. PRIVATE SCHOOL EXPENSES - The support guidelines do not consider the costs of private school tuition. If a private school is a reasonable need of the child because of the child’s special needs, or the parties’ prior standard of living, the support award may be adjusted so that the parents share the expense proportionate to the parties' incomes.
9. DIRECT CONTRIBUTION OF NON-CUSTODIAL PARENT - The support guidelines assume that the non-custodial parent has regular contact with his/her child. Therefore, adjustments to the guidelines will only be considered if the defendant spends an unusually great or small amount of time with the child or pays an unusually high or low amount of the expenses of the child (i.e. if the defendant has the child overnight 40% of the time or more) or pays an unusually high or low amount of the expenses of the child.
10. MEDICAL SUPPORT - The law requires that both parties provide medical support for the children, if able. Therefore, when a support Order is issued through Domestic Relations, it may require the plaintiff and the defendant to have medical insurance for the children/plaintiff and to pay part of the medical costs not covered by insurance. Most recent support orders provide for medical support. Also, the law requires that unreimbursed medical expenses be divided proportionally between the parties according to their incomes. However, the support guidelines assume that the first $250.00 per person/per year of unreimbursed medical expenses will be paid by the custodial parent. If your Order does not include it, you may petition to have your Order modified (changed) to add medical support.
11. COLLEGE EXPENSES FOR ADULT CHILDREN - In the past, college support was allowed by case law for adult children. This case law was overturned in the case of Blue v. Blue. The Legislature, in response to the Court's decision in Blue, enacted legislation that took effect June 2, 1993. On October 10, 1995 this statute was declared unconstitutional. Therefore, the Domestic Relations Section can pursue college support for adult children only in limited circumstances. Please contact an attorney if you feel that your child has special circumstances.
12. EFFECT ON T.A.N.F. RECIPIENT (a person who receives Temporary Assistance for Needy Families receives a welfare grant for a child) – The Department of Public Welfare (DPW) requires everyone who receives a T.A.N.F. grant to file for support against the non-custodial parent. The person who receives T.A.N.F. must assign (give over) his or her rights to support to the DPW. This means that all money collected from the non-custodial parent on the support order will be turned over to the DPW. If the support award is higher than the total benefits received from the DPW, then the custodial parent and children may no longer receive public assistance and will directly receive all money from the support order. Any arrears (back support) owing to DPW at the time the custodial parent takes the children off welfare must still be paid to the DPW.
If an alleged father (the man who was named as father) appears at a support conference and denies that he is the father of the child, the conference can go no further until paternity is established. (Paternity tests generally are not allowed for a child born while the parties are married to each other.) If appropriate, the Domestic Relations Section will arrange for the parties and the child to have paternity testing at the Domestic Relations Section to test whether or not the man is the father of the child.
The laboratory will test the genetic samples to determine how likely it is that the man is the father. After the testing is completed, the results of the tests are sent to both parties and are reviewed with the alleged father. If the alleged father agrees that he is the father of the child, he will sign a document that he is the father, then a conference will be scheduled to determine the amount of support. If the alleged father continues to deny paternity after receiving the genetic test results, the case will be scheduled for further proceedings by the court.
An alleged father may receive a free attorney following the paternity test review by requesting one, if the court decides that he cannot afford an attorney. Counsel (an attorney) for the Domestic Relations Section represents mothers in paternity cases. If the man is found to be the father by the Court, the Court will usually order that he pay for the genetic test costs and the court costs.
If Only One Party Appears
If the plaintiff (the person asking for support) fails to appear for a scheduled conference, the case may be dismissed. However, if the plaintiff is on public assistance, the case will continue in his/her absence and the Department of Public Welfare will be notified that the plaintiff has failed to cooperate. This could result in the plaintiff being taken off public assistance.
If the Domestic Relations Section was given the address of the defendant’s employer before the conference or hearing, the income information will be requested directly from that employer. This provides the necessary "proof of earnings".
Before a support order can be entered, the law requires proof that the person against whom the support claim is made (the defendant) has been given notice of the claim and a date to come to a conference or hearing. If receipt of that notice can be proven and the defendant (the person being asked to pay support) fails to appear, and if it has been determined how much the defendant earns, a support order may be entered. Otherwise, the proceedings will be delayed, and the defendant may be sent a notice of warrant for arrest for his or her failure to appear.
FAILURE TO APPEAR AS DIRECTED BY THE COURT IS A SERIOUS MATTER WHICH COULD RESULT IN FINES, IMPRISONMENT OR BOTH.
If the two parties cannot come to an agreement at the conference, a hearing will be scheduled. The officer may enter a temporary Order called an Interim Order, for 100% of the recommended amount if this is a new case. The support case then will be scheduled to be heard by a Judge. The hearing will usually be held about four to six weeks after the conference.
The hearing will be transcribed and all rules of court will apply. The Judge will review the conference officer’s recommendation and notes, take testimony if necessary, review documents, and apply the guidelines and the law of Pennsylvania. Factors previously described in this manual will be taken into account. Following the hearing, and after considering the issues, the Judge's recommendation will be mailed to the parties. The recommendation will contain the amount of support the defendant is to pay and will also contain any other issues related to support.
Either party may file an appeal (called exceptions to the recommendation), within 20 days of receiving the recommendation.
Exceptions to the Hearing Officer’s Recommendation
Either party may file exceptions to the hearing officer’s recommendation. Exceptions allow the parties to argue before a Judge of the Family Court that the support Order is improper. This appearance before the Judge is called "Argument Court". Meanwhile, the hearing officer’s recommendation becomes an order of court, which both parties must follow until the Judge rules on the case and enters the final order.
Usually exceptions are filed by one or both of the parties’ attorneys, but it is possible to file them yourself. If you file exceptions, and the hearing was recorded, you must pay for the tape of the recorded hearing to be transcribed (typed). Once the tape is transcribed, the Domestic Relations Section schedules a hearing date for Argument Court. The parties or their attorneys file written summaries of their position (briefs) to the judge. On the date of the Argument Court hearing, the parties or their attorneys argue their clients' position, then, after reviewing all of the evidence, the judge gives a final decision.
IF EXCEPTIONS ARE NOT FILED WITHIN TWENTY DAYS, THE RECOMMENDATION WILL BECOME A FINAL ORDER OF COURT. IF EXCEPTIONS ARE FILED, THE RECOMMENDATION WILL BECOME A TEMPORARY ORDER.