What Constitutes Mitigation of a Decrease in Earnings for Child Support?
It is axiomatic that the amount of child support one pays is calculated, in large part, according to the incomes of the parents of the child(ren) for which support is being sought. As a result, a reduction in one’s income can, and often does, result in a reduction in one’s child support obligation; however, there are times when one experiences a reduction in income and such a reduction does not permit a concomitant reduction in child support. The matter of Grigoruk v. Grigoruk, 912 A.2d 311 (Pa.Super. 2006), helps clarify when one may reduce one’s income and receive a consequent reduction in child support.
In Grigoruk, the mother, for the eight years prior to the opinion that is the subject of this article, was employed in various positions earning between $84,000 and $101,400 a year. She had an extensive education, including a doctorate degree, and had an impressive work history, including working as a certified teacher, school principle and school superintendent. She also served as the chief executive director of the Greater Lehigh Valley Girl Scout Council, earning $90,000 a year. After several years working with the Girl Scouts, the mother chose to take her career in a different direction, and secured a position as a reading specialist earning $52,000.
The mother filed for a modification of her support obligation due to her decline in income and that matter was appealed to Pennsylvania Superior Court, whose decision is the subject of this article.
At a hearing, the mother testified that she spent six months searching for a position and, pursuant to the same, sent out approximately 10 applications for employment. The reading specialist position was the only job application which resulted in a job offer to her. The mother explained during her testimony that she appreciated her new position as it was a less demanding job that would allow her more time to spend with her children.
Pursuant to Rule 1910.16-2(d)(1), accepting a lower paying job will generally have no effect on a support obligation; however, a party may not voluntarily reduce her income to attempt to circumvent a support obligation. In Grigoruk it was undisputed that the mother did not attempt to reduce her support obligation through securing a lower paying job. ue to a confidentiality agreement, the mother was unable to detail the causes of her separation from the Girl Scouts. As a result, the court assumed she was terminated for willful misconduct. Per the rule cited above, termination for cause can reduce child support if the parent suffering the decline in income mitigates her decreased earnings.
The father argued that a six-month job search which produced only 10 job applications is a paltry effort that hardly qualifies as mitigation. Indeed, the father noted that the mother chose not to pursue positions with similar salaries to her former positions, choosing to investigate lower paying jobs instead.
The court took a different view of the mother’s efforts. The court observed that the mother did apply for “quite a few positions” (including those with a salary similar to her earning history) and that she accepted the first offer that came her way. Indeed, refusing the job offer on the basis that its salary was too low would likely have caused her to be even more exposed to an argument that she did not mitigate her income reduction.
The father further argued that, regardless of the position the m other accepted, she has a continuing duty to continue to pursue employment offering a salary similar to her employment history.
The court observed that the issue of mitigation had not been addressed in existing case law. In analyzing the arguments, the court held that there was no argument or evidence suggesting that Mother’s reduction compromised the best interests of the children at issue, which is the primary consideration. Their lives have remained substantially the same: they live in the same house, they attend the same private school, and they participate in the same extracurricular activities. Indeed, the mother’s new position also affords her more time to spend with the children, which is in their best interests. Furthermore, the court also ruled that the law, as currently understood, does not require Mother to continue searching for a higher paying job in order to avoid being assessed a higher earning capacity.
The court respected the mother’s decision to commit to a new job which allows her to spend more time with her children and believed that she expended sufficient efforts to find satisfactory employment. Indeed, the court accepted mother’s assertion that continuing her job search could have jeopardized her current employment. The court, as an aside, commented that if the mother has an opportunity for advancement at her new employment, or is offered another job, which carries a higher salary with it, and chooses not to pursue it, there may be an argument to assess her a higher earning capacity.
When it comes to mitigation in child support, the instant case has helped clarify what the law is and how it is to be applied.
Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer Blog on November 10, 2016 and can be seen here and reprinted in Volume 38, Issue No. 4, December 2016 edition of the “Pennsylvania Family Lawyer and can be seen here.