Superior Court Allows Child Support Deviation for Inheritance
The laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania lay out guidelines for how an order for child support is to be calculated. Although the guidelines are sufficient for the majority of cases, Pennsylvania law also allows for the opportunity to deviate from those guidelines provided certain circumstances are present. The recent Pennsylvania Superior Court matter of E.R.L. v. C.K.L., Case No.: 437 MDA 2015, 2015 WL 9691033 addresses the effect a significant inheritance may have on a child support case.
In the E.R.L. matter the Mother filed for child support. At the trial level, the Father’s (who is the obligor) annual earning capacity was stipulated to be $76,440 whilst the Mother’s (who is the obligee) annual earning capacity was $12.12 per hour over a twenty-five hour work week. In addition to the above, the Father was found to have access to a $600,000 inheritance.
In calculating the child support obligation, the trial court entered an order which included a substantial upward deviation from the guidelines, as well as an additional assessment for current extra-curricular activities, and 80% responsibility for any future extra-curricular activities. The Father appealed the aforesaid child support order to Superior Court.
At the outset, the Superior Court established that a child support determination must, first and foremost, serve the best interests of the child(ren) at issue. Furthermore, a parent has an absolute duty to provide for his/her child(ren) financially, even if that duty causes hardship and/or requires sacrifice.
While the respective incomes of the parents in the instant matter were not in dispute, the Father took issue with the trial court’s consideration of his above-mentioned inheritance in entering the child support order, claiming that the inheritance was being treated as income. The Superior Court clarified that assets, like the inheritance at issue herein, are not to be calculated as income, but rather may be relevant in determining whether an upward deviation from the child support guidelines is warranted. To this end, the Superior Court noted that the trial court did not impermissibly treat the Father’s inheritance asset as income, but appropriately treated it as an asset to be considered for deviation.
Father further argued that the upward deviation was unnecessary as the standard guidelines support calculation was, in his estimation, sufficient to provide or his children. In making this argument, Father first pointed out that the trial court did not detail how the nine statutory factors for a support deviation (per Pa.R.C.P. 1910.6-5(b)) each specifically applied to his case. In rejecting this argument, the Superior Court explained that there is no legally required amount of detail for a trial court’s explanation for its deviation from the support guidelines, therefore addressing each of the nine factors individually is unnecessary. Instead, the Court indicated that a trial court simply has to provide an explanation in sufficient detail as to provide a clear justification for its decision to deviate from the support guidelines.
Father then argued that the trial court entered an order that, if compared to the guidelines, would be for the support of seven children instead of his three, which makes it, according to him, clearly excessive and an abuse of the trial court’s discretion. The Superior Court rejected this argument out of hand. The Court ruled that if the asset exists, then it is open to be considered in a child support order and the trial court is within its discretion in applying the deviation to ensure his children have an appropriate level of support in light of the income and assets available and the fact that overarching purpose of a support order is to serve the best interests of the children at issue.
Finally, Father complained that assessing him 80% responsibility to pay for future extra-curricular activities is tantamount to granting the Mother sole legal custody to decide the extra-curricular activities in which to enroll the children. The Superior Court dismissed this argument as well, noting that a support order does not influence a parent’s custodial rights over his children, and therefore such a custody argument is misplaced in the context of child support. Instead, the Court suggested, if the Father has concerns regarding the legal custody of his children, he ought to file an appropriate petition in a custody proceeding.
As one can see, as a child support order is, ultimately, to be considered as promoting the best interests of the children for whom it is entered, all income and assets are to be considered when calculating child support, and a substantial inheritance is fair game when deciding whether a deviation from the child support guidelines is warranted.