Child Support Liens Examined by Pennsylvania Superior Court
Law Provides Two Alternative Methods
When a parent who owes child support attempts to sell real estate, or collects a lump sum payment from a government agency, the law may authorize an automatic child support lien to collect the support arrears. If the child support arrears are less than $5,000, the automatic child support lien imposed by 23 Pa.C.S. § 4308.1 may not apply, but the child support agency has the option of pursuing a lien under § 4305. That’s the recent decision of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, vacating a trial court decision in a child support contempt case.
In Coffman v. Kline, 2017 Pa.Super. 241, ___ A.3d ____ (July 24, 2017), the Superior Court heard an appeal from a trial court order declining to impose an automatic child support lien against the workers compensation settlement received by a parent in the amount of $3,400.00. The child support arrears had accrued to more than $13,800.00. Upon learning of the pending workers comp settlement, the Domestic Relations Section triggered a non-disbursement order to the workers comp insurance carrier, and yet the insurance carrier released the check to the delinquent parent.
Next, the Domestic Relations Section issued a contempt petition against the insurance company for violating the non-disbursement order. After a hearing, the trial court dismissed the petition for contempt, finding that there was a $5,000 “safe harbor” under 23 Pa.C.S. § 4308.1 that could not be invaded.
On appeal, the DRS argued that § 4308.1 and § 4305 created two alternative methods of collecting child support arrears, and that they were not mutually exclusive. Moreover, the DRS argued that the $5,000 “safe harbor” under § 4308.1 did not apply to § 4305.
The Superior Court observed that this was not the first time covering this ground. Previously, in Campbell v. Walker, 982 A.2d 1013 (Pa.Super. 2009), the Superior Court heard a case involving a personal injury settlement. The DRS in that case issued an administrative injunction against the personal injury lawyer (or insurance company) to stop the disbursement of the injured parent’s settlement proceeds, in order to pay child support arrears of $3,083. The Walker trial court vacated the injunction, allowing the proceeds to be paid to the injured parent without satisfying the support arrears owed to the other parent. The Superior Court reversed, finding that § 4308.1 was not an exclusive remedy.
Here, the Superior Court similarly found that §§ 4308.1 and 4305 were complementary alternative methods of collecting child support arrears. The Court held that an automatic child support lien imposed under § 4305 is not subject to the $5,000 exclusion provided by § 4308.1. The Court was not convinced by the insurance carrier’s argument thta Campbell applied only to personal injury proceeds, and not to workers comp settlements. The Court held that the carriers’ violation of the non-disbursement order was valid grounds for civil contempt, and that the workers comp order approving the settlement agreement provided the carrier no immunity.
The Pittsburgh child support lawyers at Pollock Begg Komar Glasser & Vertz LLC have decades of experience in collecting and defending child support liens. Our team of advocates can provide effective legal representation and settle cases out of court. Call today at (412) 471-9000 to speak to one of our lawyers or use our online contact form.
Brian C. Vertz is a partner in Pollock Begg Komar Glasser & Vertz LLC, with decades of experience in routine and complex child support cases. Brian is the course planner and author of the 2017 Family Law Update for the Pennsylvania Bar Institute. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and holds an MBA in finance.