Why is Child Support Based on Income, without Considering Expenses?

by Brian Vertz on May 17, 2013

As a child support lawyer, I am frequently asked why the Pennsylvania child support guidelines don’t consider a parent’s expenses. Sometimes paying child support makes a parent “see red.”  Parents may experience personal budget deficits when they have to add child support to the list of bills they pay each month. And the court doesn’t seem to care. What gives?

The child support guidelines do not (generally) consider expenses. That’s because every parent’s willingness to spend money is different. Two parents with the same income might have very different spending habits. It would be impossible to have consistent results if the courts looked at spending.

In the 1980′s the Pennsylvania courts implemented uniform child support guidelines, the “formulas” that are applied to calculate child support. The child support guidelines are income-driven, with almost no consideration of the expenses or needs of the parents or the child. The guidelines were enacted to create uniformity and consistency, or in the words of the law, to ensure that similarly-situated people are treated equally. Everyone with the same income level should pay the same child support.

The Pennsylvania child support guidelines were developed (and are updated every few years) under the Income Shares model. The Income Shares model is a survey of in-tact families, to determine what percentage of their income is spent on the basic necessities (housing, food, clothing). The Income Shares model tells the court how much a typical family spends on their children at each income level; that’s how the basic child support is determined.

Basic child support doesn’t include health insurance, medical expenses, private school tuition, summer camp or extracurricular activities, because those expenses were never considered in the Income Shares survey. (It also doesn’t consider discretionary spending, like toys, video games, vacations, and Chuck E. Cheese.)  The Pennsylvania courts felt that those expenses should be allocated to parents in proportion to their incomes, and added to the basic child support obligation. Sometimes, the health insurance premiums or extracurricular activities cost a lot in comparison to the basic child support, especially in cases where there is shared custody of children. The Pennsylvania method of calculating child support isn’t perfect, but no one  has developed a better system, so it goes on.

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