Alimony & Spousal Support


Support contempt actions are instituted once a payor, for what can be a multitude of reasons, falls behind or fails to pay his or her support or alimony obligation through the Pennsylvania Child Support Program or some other agreement. Punishment mechanisms are statutorily in place if necessary to respond to these issues, but the court’s primary concern is having the payor pay his or her obligation.

A petition for contempt can be filed by the payee at any time, or by the court’s domestic relations section. Should a payor fail to appear for the hearing, the court may issue a bench warrant as provided by the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure.

The failure to pay, alone, is not a sufficient reason for a contempt order to be entered. The panel said that the court spends a substantial period in a hearing assessing the “ability to pay” by the payor. They will be questioned on their income and expenses and will be provided an opportunity to respond to any inquiries about their ability to pay. Since one’s freedom is always an issue (one possible punishment for the willful failure to pay can be incarceration), legal counsel is provided by the payor’s own private counsel or by the court.

Pitffalls to this process can include failure to serve the payor, or respondent; relying on “failure to pay” as the only reason for filing a contempt; failing to provide hard copies of exhibits to be introduced at trial; failing to question a respondent as to how much they are able to pay at the time of the hearing; failing to ask specific questions about respondent’s employment and job seeking efforts; and failing to simply inquire how a respondent, who claims to have no income, is supporting themselves.

Also, counsel needs to advise the respondent to bring as much funding as possible on the day of the hearing. A good-faith payment of a sufficient amount will likely keep a respondent out of jail. The main purpose of a support contempt hearing for all parties is to get a respondent “back on track” and resuming their regular payments.

Counsel also needs their client to bring supporting documentation of inability to work for health reasons and to bring proof of their expenses. There is the possibility that a respondent will be punished by imprisonment, fines or probation. Also, the court can freeze or seize assets, enter a payment plan for the payor and intercept tax refunds.

Other tips include resolving the matter before it goes to court, conduct title searches for property owned by respondent or respondents and observe trials.

Reference: Lee. A. Schwartz, Philadelphia Bar Reporter, Vol. 47, No. 6, June 2018, page 19

Kindly visit our Family Law and Alimony/Spousal Support websites or contact one of our Family Law Attorneys, Philadelphia or Divorce Attorneys, Philadelphia at 215-977-8200 for more information on this topic.