There are a number of remedies available to promote payment of support obligations within Pennsylvania. First, Pennsylvania does wage garnishment where possible to ensure payments are collected in full on a consistent basis. If a payor does fall behind, the court will call the party in for contempt proceedings. A payor who is able to catch up at the time of the contempt proceeding will usually avoid any further sanctions. Alternatively, if the court accepts a repayment plan offered by the payor there may not be any further enforcement remedies pursued. If a payor cannot make payment in full or offer a satisfactory plan for catching up on payments, they will have to go before a Judge to discuss their failure to keep up with their support obligations.
There are many options available to ensure support payments are being made. Income withholding is standard with most support orders. This will allow the support payments to be deducted directly from the payor's income. Domestic Relations will send an income withholding order to the employer for implementation. If there is upwards of a fifteen (15) day delay in receiving payment, contempt proceedings can be initiated by Domestic Relations or the party receiving support. Overdue support, or arrears, will begin to accumulate with each late or missed payment. The court can unilaterally increase the monthly support award to account for the growing arrears in an attempt to help bring the account current again.
23 Pa. C.S. 5323 (f) provides that any custody order should have sufficient detail to enable the parties to understand what they are obligated to do and for law enforcement authorities to be able to assist in enforcement where appropriate. Section (g) discusses the consequences for violation of an established custody order. "A party who willfully fails to comply with any custody order may be adjudged in contempt. Contempt shall be punishable by any one or more of the following: (i) imprisonment for a period not more than six months; (ii) a fine of not more than $500; (iii) probation for a period of not more than six months; (iv) an order for nonrenewal, suspension or denial of operating privilege; and/or (iv) counsel fees." 23 PA. C.S. 5323 (g).
Oftentimes when you have a custody agreement, your agreement or order spells out specific times and meeting places for custody exchanges. Even the best crafted custody agreement, however, does not contemplate every situation that possibly could arise. In these circumstances, you must often make a judgement call. For example, if your child is burning up with a fever, it may not be in the best interest of your child to insist that they return to you for your designated custodial time. You may want to consider your child and let them rest until they are up for travel. With winter upon us, you may also find yourself required by your custody order to exchange your child in the middle of a snowstorm, or worse, blizzard. Again, you should use your best judgement in deciding whether to follow the custody agreement. This is why it is very important that parents be able to communicate with each other. Oftentimes, you will need to make accommodations for the other parent. You cannot expect a custody agreement or court order to resolve every possible scenario.
There are numerous consequences that stem from the failure to pay child support. One possibility is that you will be denied a U.S. passport. If you owe $2,500 or more in child support, you are not eligible to receive a U.S. passport. If you discover your eligibility is affected due to past due child support you must first contact the Domestic Relations section that handles your case to clear the balance. After having resolved any outstanding balance, it generally takes an additional 2-3 weeks before your application for a passport will be able to be processed.
Be it divorce, custody or support, once a court order is put in place, any violation of that court order can be considered contempt. For example, if a custody order provides that the parents are to exchange custody every Wednesday and the exchange never occurs to the fault of one party, the faulting party is in contempt. The consequences of being held in contempt can vary. 23 Pa. C.S. 5323 (g) regarding contempt of custody provides for any one of the following as punishment: imprisonment for a period not to exceed six months, a fine not to exceed $500, probation for a period not to exceed six months; and/or counsel fees and costs. In practice, based on the severity of the case, the Judge may just give a verbal warning or may suspend custody until the court order is complied with.
In Warmkessel v. Heffner, 2011 PA Super 46, the Superior Court held that credit will not be given for time already spent in jail between being taking into custody and the support hearing due to non-payment of child support. The Defendant Father had been ordered to pay $260 per month in child support for his two children. After failing to pay regularly, several contempt petitions and a missed support enforcement hearing, the court issued a bench warrant for Father's arrest. Police took the Father into custody a few months later and a hearing was scheduled for approximately 3 weeks out. At the hearing, the court found Defendant Father owed $6,037 in late child support payments and sanctioned him to a maximum of 3 months imprisonment. Defendant Father's attorney asked the court to give Father credit for the 21 days already served and the court declined.