The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recently issued the updates to the Pennsylvania Support Rules and Guidelines, which go into effect on May 12, 2010. The Pennsylvania Support Rules and Guidelines are required to be updated every four years and many times involve only an update to the child support schedule with little or no substantive changes to the rules. This year, however, there are a number of significant changes and in some instances, may have a major effect on the calculation of child or spousal support. Below are some of the more significant changes to the 2010 Amendments to the Pennsylvania Support Guidelines:
1. The first and potentially most significant change is in the application of the support guidelines to circumstances where the monthly household income is in excess of $20,000. Previously, the child support schedule ended at a combined adjusted net income for the parties at $20,000. The new schedule includes a combined adjusted net income of up to $30,000. Therefore, the basic child support schedule can be used where the parties’ income is up to or equal to $30,000 per month. This should provide some much needed uniformity in calculating support for parties who have a substantial monthly income up to $30,000.
2. Additionally, under the current guidelines for child support, if the parties’ monthly net income exceeded $20,000, the Court was instructed to apply the analysis as found in the Melzer v. Witsberger decision in order to calculate the support amount payable. This analysis contained a presumptive minimum but then required the court to apply a number of factors in order to determine the final amount of support. The 2010 changes to the support guidelines eliminate the use of the Melzer calculation and instead apply a formula to determine the child support obligation which can be found at new Rule 1910.16-3.1.
The elimination of the Melzer analysis is likely to result in a much more uniform application of the support procedure in high income cases in which the parties’ net monthly income exceeds $30,000. Previously, in high income cases, there was a presumptive minimum amount of support established by the rules and the court was then required to apply a multitude of factors in order to mold a child support award. The elimination of that analysis will likely result in a much more consistent and understandable procedure to calculate child support in high income cases. This is certainly more consistent with the rules for lower income cases which were established to standardize and provide consistency across the state in calculating child support.
3. There have been changes to the spousal support calculation in the updated guidelines. Most notably, the language requiring the Court to consider the duration of the marriage when determining the duration of a spousal support or alimony pendente lite (APL) award has been added directly to the rule providing for spousal support and APL. This language was previously contained in the rule allowing for deviations from the calculations and the effect may be to have the Court take a much more serious look at the duration of the marriage when determining the duration of a spousal support or APL award. An additional comment has been added to address the addition of this language and states specifically that the language was moved "to prevent the unfairness that arises in a short-term marriage when the obligors required to pay support over a substantially longer period of time than the parties were married and there is little or no opportunity for credit for these payments at the time of equitable distribution." Whether or not this language will have a substantial effect in the calculation of spousal support or APL where there has been a relatively short marriage remains to be seen since the language has always been contained within the rules.
4. An additional change to the child support calculation which has the potential to effect not only high income cases, but also those which fall within the basic child support schedule is that the updated rules explicitly, presumes that the non-custodial parent (the parent paying the support), is spending at least 30% of the time with the child or the children and therefore expenditures on things such as food and entertainment, which vary depending upon how much time a parent spends with a child, is built into the new schedule. The comment to Rule 1910.16-4 goes on to provide that a deviation either upward or downward may be had where the non-custodial (paying) parent has little or no contact with the children or where that parent has substantial expenditures during his parenting time, but has infrequent overnights with the children. While this language is contained within a comment to the rule and is therefore only guidance in its application, this rule has the potential to significantly affect a number of parties providing support in this state who either exercise a minimal amount of time with their child or who may exercise significant periods of custody which don’t count as overnight periods of custody but have large expenditures during that time.
5. A few other of the noteworthy changes in the 2010 updates include a change to the application of the Mortgage Deviation Credit in a support award. Specifically, the rules now have specifically provided that a mortgage deviation is no longer applicable and cannot be applied after a final resolution of the economic claims between the parties to a divorce. This rule is contrary to current case law and specifically states in the comment that to the extent this rule conflicts with current case law, the case law is superseded.
6. Finally, the self-support reserve amount or the minimal amount which a party must earn in order to subject them to a support obligation has been increased to $867.00 per month, which was the 2008 federal poverty level.
These rules go into effect on May 12, 2010, so a current support order would not be subject to change simply because of the new guidelines. However, if in the future the Order is required to be modified, then these rules would have application to a current support order and may, depending on the circumstance, have a substantial impact.