COVID Focus: Should Family Court Adjust Child Support for Parents Unable to Work Full Time?

June 23, 2020 | Blog, Child Support, COVID-19, Divorce

Icon for author Brian Vertz Brian Vertz

Now that many children are being homeschooled due to the COVID crisis, should the family court adjust child support for those parents who are unable to work full time? A recent decision of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania may shed light on that issue.

In Deputy v. Deputy, No. 2689 EDA 2019 (April 13, 2020) (nonprecedential), the Superior Court heard a child support appeal in which the parents’ four children were enrolled in cyber-schools. Their mother worked flexible hours from home until her employer went out of business, and then had great difficulty finding another job that would allow her to work from home. The children’s father had worked two jobs during the marriage, but reduced his hours when the marriage fell apart, so that he could be more available to help with the children.

The Bucks County family court calculated child support as though the father were still working at both of his jobs, and did not assign an earning capacity to mother beyond her unemployment benefits. Father’s combined obligation for child support, spousal support and the mortgage contribution increased by over 80% when the family court considered his case.

On appeal, the father argued that mother was capable of earning more than she actually was, and homeschooling their children was not sufficient cause to excuse her from contributing to their support. The Superior Court disagreed with Father, who claimed that he was capable of helping to educate the children but did not historically fulfill that role. The Superior Court cited the nurturing parent doctrine, a legal principle often cited many years in child support cases where a parent (typically a mother) chose to stay home to care for a young child.

“Both parents have an equal duty to support their children,” wrote the appeals judge. “Support, however, can include care that a parent provides for the parties’ children in the home. Under the nurturing parent doctrine, such care can excuse the parent from contributing financial support and the full earning capacity of that parent need not be considered in calculating child support. Where the record establishes that one parent stayed home to provide care for the parties’ children during the marriage and that parent continues to provide such care, it is not an abuse of discretion for the court to disregard that parent’s full earning capacity in calculating child support [citations omitted].”

The Superior Court examined the evidence presented in this case, and noted that the mother had been homeschooling the children for seven years, both prior to and after the marital separation.  Father had helped from time to time, but mostly he held two jobs to support the family. Given this history, the court found that it was appropriate to apply the nurturing parent doctrine and rely upon the father to provide the bulk of the children’s financial support.

Still, the Superior Court did not entirely excuse the mother from working. The court held that her earning capacity should be determined, even if it were part-time or less than father was earning.  The court vacated the family court’s order and remanded the case to be reconsidered in light of its instructions.

Nonprecedential decisions like Deputy cannot be cited in court as binding authority, but they might have persuasive value in other cases with similar facts.

For more than 25 years, Brian C. Vertz has been representing parents in child support cases where legal principles like the nurturing parent doctrine may come into play. His family law practice at Pollock Begg covers Allegheny, Butler, Beaver, Mercer, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The team of lawyers at the Pittsburgh family law firm of Pollock Begg has extensive knowledge and experience helping parents reach fair and equitable child support orders, mainly through out-of-court settlements, but also in litigation and appeals. Contact the firm at 412.471.9000 or fill out the online contact form if you need help with a child support issue in western Pennsylvania.

About the Author

Brian C. Vertz is a partner in Pollock Begg with decades of experience in routine and complex child support, divorce and tax-related family law cases. Author of the legal reference book “Frumkes & Vertz on Divorce Taxation,” Brian is a sought-after speaker, course planner and the author of the 2017 Family Law Update for the Pennsylvania Bar Institute. Brian is a fellow of the International Academy of Family Lawyers as well as the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

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