Each county’s domestic relations office establishes support orders, keeps track of payments and amounts due and handles enforcement of support orders, in conjunction with the county court system.  You initiate a support action by filing a complaint with the domestic relations office.  In many counties, this can be done online.  If you are represented by an attorney, it is important to give your attorney’s contact information when you file so he or she gets copies of all the paperwork.

After a complaint is filed, the domestic relations office schedules a support conference and notifies everyone involved.  Child support, spousal support or alimony pendente lite (temporary alimony while the divorce action is pending) orders established through the Domestic Relations Office are based on formulas.  The primary figures used in those formulas are both parties’ net monthly incomes, which means your incomes after deducting required payments, such as taxes and union dues.  Additional expenses such as medical insurance, mortgage payments and other extraordinary expenses can either increase or decrease the support amount.  The conference officer will calculate the support numbers and recommend an order.

The support order is effective as of the filing date of the complaint, so it is usually retroactive from the date of the conference.  Therefore, it usually includes an additional monthly amount towards arrears, which is the amount owed from the filing date to the date of the order.  If either party is unhappy with the order, he or she can request a hearing before a judge or a support master, depending on the county.  All support payments are made to the State Collection and Disbursement Unit, which collects then disburses the payments.

If support payments aren’t made, the domestic relations office will schedule enforcement proceedings, which starts with a conference and can end up at a hearing before a judge if not resolved.  Nobody wants to be involved in a support enforcement proceeding.  It is possible to be jailed for not paying support, so it’s not something to mess around with.

In my experience, the employees of the domestic relations offices are dedicated, hard-working and courteous.  They have a tough job with demanding expectations and I believe they work hard to do things right.

You are not required to have an attorney in the domestic relations process.  However, I believe you should at least consult an attorney in advance so you can make an informed decision about whether you want to handle this process on your own.

Of course, if you can avoid dealing with the domestic relations office, I recommend that you do so.  It is usually better for everybody to reach an agreement without having the domestic relations office involved – less stress and more control over the outcome for you and one less support action for the domestic relations office to handle.  You can resolve child support, spousal support and alimony pendente lite issues privately and respectfully through alternative dispute resolution methods such as the collaborative law process and mediation.

If you live or work in the central Pennsylvania area, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding communities and would like to discuss how the domestic relations office works or any other family law or estate planning or administration issue, please contact me.