Alimony, spousal support and alimony pendente lite are three similar but separate concepts in Pennsylvania. Under Pennsylvania law, the term alimony always refers to post-divorce periodic payments, which many other jurisdictions call spousal support. In Pennsylvania, spousal support and alimony pendente lite (APL) are functionally interchangeable terms. They refer to periodic payments made during the separation period prior to the conclusion of divorce litigation. Many other jurisdictions apply the label “maintenance” to such payments. It’s important to work with knowledgeable Pittsburgh spousal support attorneys to ensure the best outcome for you and your family.

What is the difference between spousal support and APL in Pennsylvania?

There are two significant differences between spousal support and APL. First, APL may be awarded only after a divorce action has been commenced. Spousal support, on the other hand, may be awarded to an estranged spouse before a divorce action is initiated, if the parties are separated.

Second, there are virtually no defenses to a claim for APL, while a spousal support claim may be defeated by an entitlement defense. An entitlement defense may exist if the plaintiff has committed fault grounds for divorce, such as infidelity, abandonment or cruelty. Thus, a spouse who has committed adultery may not be entitled to receive spousal support upon separation, but can receive APL in the exact same amount once a divorce action is filed.

How does Pennsylvania calculate spousal support?

Spousal support and APL are calculated in the same way as laid out in Section 1910.16 of the Pennsylvania support guidelines, which was recently amended as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act enacted in December of 2017 and is effective January 1, 2009 .

The spousal support or APL calculation is by taking 40 percent of the difference in the payor’s monthly net income if there are no children less the payee’s monthly net income. If there are dependent children, the spousal support or APL is 30 percent of the difference often subtracting the payor’s child support obligation.

If the parties’ combined monthly net income exceeds $30,000, the above formula is only preliminary and both parties submit budgets to the Court or Master before a final determination is made.

What are support guidelines?

Pennsylvania is the only state, and one of the few jurisdictions nationwide, which employs mandatory guidelines to determine spousal support. The significance of spousal support guidelines cannot be overestimated. Pennsylvania’s spousal support guidelines foster predictability and consistency of results, which encourages settlement. The precedential value of reported decisions is improved because decisions are based upon interpretation of the legal guidelines rather than broad discretion.

Pennsylvania’s spousal support guidelines are simple in principle and application. The first statewide guidelines were promulgated in 1989. Previously, each county had its own set of child support guidelines, as required by federal and state law since 1985. The spousal support guidelines are ancillary to Pennsylvania’s child support guidelines. From their inception, the Pennsylvania guidelines have included a table (based upon the Income Shares Model) for calculating child support and a formula for calculating spousal support, with or without children.

The Pennsylvania guidelines are unlike the guidelines of every other state because they include a spousal support formula, which the others do not. Unlike the child support guideline, the spousal support formula was not based upon the Income Shares Model. Perhaps the spousal support formula was based upon the common law principle known as the “one-third rule.” This antiquated rule, derived from the English common law, was a method of allocating income to meet the needs of three groups — husbands, wives and their children.

Pursuant to federal law and Pa.R.C.P. 1910-16-1, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, through its Domestic Relations Rules Committee, is required to review and revise the support guidelines every four years. For better or worse, the spousal support guidelines have been a unique feature of Pennsylvania’s domestic relations laws for three decades. The only other jurisdictions known to use spousal support guidelines are Maricopa County, Arizona; Humboldt County, California; Santa Clara County, California; and Johnson County, Kansas. In 1999 and again in 2008, the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission proposed the idea of post-divorce alimony guidelines, but those proposals were resoundingly defeated. In 1997, the American Law Institute published Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution: Analysis and Recommendations Proposed Final Draft which contained a proposal for alimony guidelines.

Do guidelines apply to alimony?

Unlike spousal support and APL, there are no guidelines to determine the amount of alimony under Pennsylvania law. Instead, the Pennsylvania Legislature has published a list of 17 subjective criteria that the courts must consider at 23 Pa.C.S. 3701(b). Traditionally, post-divorce alimony was viewed as a secondary remedy to be awarded only when economic justice could not be accomplished by dividing marital property. Alimony was often awarded for rehabilitation of a dependent spouse’s earning capacity, such as a college degree or re-entry into the workforce. These days, the most compelling criteria seems to be unmet need, the amount by which the plaintiff’s budgetary expenses exceed his or her net monthly income. Still, every case is different and highly fact-specific.

For more information, contact a Pittsburgh spousal support attorney at Pollock Begg.

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