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Court Considers New Spouse’s Income to Determine Child Support Obligation

James W. Cushing, Esq. on 4/26/2016

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Nearly all child support orders are based on the respective incomes of the parents involved as measured by statutory guidelines. Sometimes, however, courts believe it is appropriate to deviate from those guidelines due to an unusual or extraordinary circumstance. In the matter of J.P.D. v. W.E.D., 114 A.3d 887 (Pa.Super.2015), the Court, notably and unusually, deviated from the guidelines by taking into consideration a step-parent's income.

In May 2013 the obligor father ("father") in J.P.D. filed a petition to modify his support order in order to account for the termination of his alimony order to his ex-wife, the obligee mother ("mother").

Pursuant to the above-mentioned petition to modify, the parties fully litigated the support matter, including proceeding through a support conference, two custody masters' hearings and an exceptions hearing (they each filed exceptions to the second custody master's decision). The trial court, which heard the exceptions, took into account the father's new wife's income as part of his household income which warranted, in the court's estimation, an upward deviation from the support guidelines resulting in father's guidelines support obligation, about $700 a month, being doubled to nearly $1,400 a month.

Father filed an appeal from the trial court's ruling to Superior Court claiming that a deviation of nearly 100% more than the guidelines amount was unlawfully punitive and/or confiscatory.

When reviewing the trial court's decision, the Superior Court first noted that there is a rebuttable presumption that the guidelines support amount is the correct amount for a given case. See Pa.R.C.P. 1910.16-1. The presumption can be rebutted if it can be shown that a deviation from the guidelines is warranted per Pa.R.C.P. 1910.16-5. Father argued that a significant deviation, like the one in his case, is not a legitimate deviation, but is punitive and/or confiscatory.

The underling facts of the J.P.D. matter are fairly atypical. Father testified that his new wife has an annual income of approximately $1,000,000. He further testified that he does not pay for any of his own expenses, including mortgages, car payments, utilities, or even entertainment. He, instead, relies upon his wife's substantial income for those expenses. Indeed, father could not provide virtually any details into his household expenses as his new wife has full control over them and provides for all of father's needs. When pressed on his monthly expenses, father conceded that he does not even bother opening his mail, leaving that task for his wife. Furthermore, father and his new wife own the house in which they live, a weekend getaway house, and another property to be developed, while he also leases a Cadillac for $940 a month and travels and vacations frequently. The Court found that since father's new wife provides for all of father's needs, all of his income is available for child support purposes.

Father argued that, regardless of whether his new wife pays for his expenses, his own income is comparable to that of mother's, so a deviation is not warranted. He further argued that a deviation which serves to double his support obligation is an abuse of the Court's discretion.

In making its ruling, the Court pointed out, as a preliminary matter, that per Pa.R.C.P. 1910.16-5(b)(3), a deviation may be granted based on other household income. By taking into consideration father's new wife's income (the so-called "other household income"), the Court ruled that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in doubling the guidelines amount. The Court noted that even with the doubled support obligation, father's support obligation still was less than 50% of his net income and is only 37% of his assessed earning capacity. Furthermore, even with the increased support amount, father's household income would still enable him to satisfy all of his reasonable expenses - not to mention the luxuries described above - without having to contribute any money from his own income toward them.

In sum, the fact that father's new wife's income is so great, combined with the fact that his income was entirely unnecessary to pay for his living expenses, the Court ruled that it was not an abuse of discretion to account for his household income which would raise his support obligation to only 37% of his earning capacity.

Therefore, when litigating child support, it is key to inquire into, and perhaps consider, the other household incomes of the parties.

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