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Child Support & Custody in Pennsylvania


Hardly anyone would dispute the the most important product of a marriage is the children (for those of us who have been lucky enough to have them). It is true that divorce can affect children, but it is somewhat presumptuous to assume that it always affects children negatively. If kids are lucky enough to have parents who actively and continually show their love for the kids, then of course the children are unlikely to want to see one parent begin to live elsewhere. But even then it does happen that children like to be able to routinely visit each parent and enjoy different circumstances in each home. Once again, this typically occurs when both parents are really good parents. 

A psychology instructor back in my college days made the point that, unlike adults, children tend to be very adaptable, recognizing, understanding and accepting different “rules” in different circumstances. For example, they know that what they may do – and may even be encouraged to do – at a playground is not going to fly in church. They may be able to get away with certain, otherwise not really harmful, behavior at Grandma’s that they cannot engage in at home. Even just at home, acceptable behavior can be different in different rooms of the house. There may be lots of breakable stuff in the dining room, but hardly any in a designated play area. It is too bad that a mom and dad who really love their kids may stop loving one another, but it happens, and divorce never has to mean the end of the loving relationship between the parents and their children although it might become a little more inconvenient when everyone is no longer under the same roof.

But, consider this: In addition to being adaptable, kids are also very perceptive. In the best of circumstances where it had been decided to end the marriage, the parents never allow their distaste for one another to show in front of the kids. Yeah, right. That is really tough to do when the marriage is at an end. One spouse says or does something that instantly angers the other and an angry, even if brief, reaction manifests itself. It happens. We’re only human. But seeing or hearing negative interactions between their parents is something children should not have to experience. If the parents are living separately, the kids can not experience it. While still together, even when the parents can keep their respective tempers from flaring up, children can still easily sense that something is seriously wrong and that will sadden them.

Obviously, even in families where divorce is far from being considered by either party, tempers will flare and kids will see that; however, in those circumstances, the kids will also see that the parents made up and everything is back to normal. The point I am getting to is that staying together for the sake of the kids when you no longer can stand one another can easily be worse for the children than separating and divorcing. Might it not be better for children to experience two separate but happier homes than one continuously full of tension, avoidance, dislike, arguments and even obvious hatred? Many psychological professionals think so.

Unfortunately, half of all marriages these days (and for the past many decades) can no longer stand the test of time. Accordingly, many of us have experienced the divorce of our parents. And can you really say that we are the worse for it? Sure, those of us with that issue in our past can look back and wish, not that our parents had just chosen to stay married, but rather that our parents had not fallen out of love with each other so that we could have had the classic one, happy family. The other side of that coin is growing up in a home where the parents made it abundantly clear that they thought their marriage was a mistake and argued viciously, loudly and openly every night making it known that they not only did not love one another, but they did not even like one another. Going to separate bedrooms every night. One – or both – going out alone and coming home late many times each week. What do children learn from that kind of a marriage? Nothing good, I think. Certainly nothing worth emulating in their own marriages.

As parents, we have both a moral and legal obligation to support our minor children financially. The court will always be there to enforce that and that is the case whether you remain married or not. Remember that a divorce means that you will not be spouses anymore, but you will remain parents. And this applies to not only the support of the kids, but their custody as well. 

While there may not be many things about government with which we are happy, Pennsylvania, unlike virtually any other state, does not require that your children even be mentioned in your divorce action. So, if the two of you have or will resolve the support and custody issues on your own, they can be left “as is”, remembering that down the road if anything goes wrong – like one parent becoming a completely dysfunctional user of drugs and/or alcohol – the Court will always be there to do what is in the best interest of the children. Keeping the kids out of the divorce will make less work for the lawyer(s) and reduced lawyer fees for you. If you like, an agreement can be prepared outlining the custody schedule; however, if you have been separated more than a few months, you probably have already gotten into a custody ‘rhythm” and there may be no reason to disturb it.. In fact, when some couples sit down to try to decide upon a written schedule, disagreements pop up over items that had never been problems before. Accordingly, you may want to think about that before beginning to attempt to formalize your current custody schedule. You have heard the cautionary expression, “Don’t upset the apple cart.” Many such longstanding warnings are based in fact.

On the other hand, if you are separated or will separate soon and you know that custody will be a major problem for the two of you, consider resolving it first without filing for divorce. The same goes for support. Afterward, one party or the other may be very unhappy with the outcome…maybe even both of you. I recommend letting the dust settle. Take as much time as needed to adjust to the situation. Filing divorce before then may well hand power to one party who can maneuver and bargain over custody and/or support in exchange for not contesting the divorce, thereby delaying and greatly increasing the cost of the divorce. Once everyone is used to the custody and support situation, the threat of contesting is much less likely. Pennsylvania law makes this strategy possible. Elsewhere, the divorce, the kids and everything else are lumped together in a big, lengthy, expensive mess.

If you are separated and your spouse is not sending support money or not enough or not often enough, if you can survive long enough to complete your divorce, you would likely be wise to do so. Making financial demands on your spouse, no matter how entirely reasonable they may be, gives your spouse power over both the divorce staying cheap and uncontested and the amount of support. If, however, you survive on what your spouse does provide, the divorce will stay cheap and reasonably fast. Once it is over, you will have access to support court and your spouse will have little if any bargaining power.

Which begs the question: What is the correct amount of child support? If you are the parent who has custody most of the time, it is your obligation to do your best to obtain a fair support payment for your children. Would it not be nice to know how much the court would require your ex to pay? That information is available to anyone who does an internet search for the Pennsylvania Support Guidelines. You will see written instructions explaining how to use the guidelines and charts based upon your income, your ex’s income and the number of kids. It will be a great temptation to go directly to the charts without reading the instructions, but if you succumb to that temptation, you will most likely end up in the wrong place in the charts and end up with an amount much lower than is correct. Those instructions are a bit long, but they are pretty easy to follow. Once you have the correct amount, you will be able to inform your ex that not enough is being paid. On the other hand, if you discover that you are receiving support in excess of what the court would require, it would be a very good plan to have a formal agreement professionally prepared by an experienced family law lawyer. You see, you ex can be bound to the higher amount that way. Conversely, if the monthly amount is below the Guideline amount and you, for whatever reason, choose not to press for more, never sign an agreement for a lower amount or you would likely be stuck with it! 

Finally, it is important to know that divorcing and surviving is possible. It may take time, take an emotional toll, not end up exactly as you would have liked and certainly not be fun, but it is doable and survivable. Look at the many others you know who have endured it and are better off for it. They are your proof that you can do it as well as your kids. Tough row to hoe? Surely. But think of the future for all of you if you do not act. It is extremely likely to just get worse and worse. No one wants that. Big step? Difficult step? No doubt. Important step? Necessary step? You know the answer.