Non-Supporting Parent Serves Six Months Despite Court’s Mistake
The Superior Court recently issued its opinion in Orfield v. Weindel, 2012 PA Super 135 (June 29, 2012), in which it held that the trial court erred by imposing a six month prison sentence upon a father who had not paid child support in over two years. The principle enunciated by the opinion is not new – that the court cannot jail a parent who is delinquent in his child support obligation without providing the “keys to the jailhouse door” by setting a purge condition that the parent can reasonably meet – but in this case, a successful appeal did not save the deadbeat dad from serving a six month incarceration. The Superior Court noted that the trial court had not only failed to set a reasonable purge condition, but also exceeded its jurisdiction by reconsidering its order (to set a more reasonable purge condition) more than 30 days after its original order. The Superior Court emphasized that a trial court must act upon a motion for reconsideration within 30 days, or else its jurisdiction is lost to the appellate courts.
Our own Judge Strassburger wrote separately to guide the trial court on remand, reminding the court that there is a difference between the statute 23 Pa.C.S. § 4344 which imposes a criminal contempt sanction upon those who willfully fail to appear at contempt proceedings and the statute 23 Pa.C.S. § 4345 which provides a civil contempt remedy for failure to pay support. What he does not say, then, is that it is not necessary t0 set a reasonable purge condition in cases where a contemnor fails to appear at the hearing; and that there is a different burden of proof (the criminal standard of “beyond reasonable doubt” is applied in criminal contempt cases).