Recently, Grammy Award winning rapper Clifford Harris—better known as T.I.—was back in court, but in a turn of events he wasn’t battling his usual criminal charges, instead, Mr. Harris appeared in family court to contest his ex-girlfriend’s, Lashon Dixon, petition to increase child support. Ms. Dixon has primary physical custody of the pair’s two sons and Mr. Harris currently shells out $2,000 a month in expenses. A judge granted Ms. Dixon’s petition and ordered Mr. Harris to increase his monthly payments to a little more than $3,000. Mr. Harris’s bone of contention during the proceedings was Ms. Dixon’s “misuse” of the child support payments. Specifically, Mr. Harris argued that Ms. Dixon chose to live off the child support payments and refuses to seek employment, despite Mr. Harris’s efforts to assist her.
Many parents who pay child support have the same complaints as those Mr. Harris raised about accountability for child support payments, which begs the question—can the parent who receives child support payments be required to provide proof and justification of the child(ren)’s expenses?
Pennsylvania, like the vast majority of states, does not generally require the custodial parent to provide an accounting of how they spend the support money received from the child(ren)’s non-custodial parent. In fact, only ten states have any statutory provisions that may be used to compel the custodial parent to account for their expenses. Among these states, four different approaches are used:
1. For Cause Showing: In Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, and Louisiana, courts may require that the custodial parent provide a summary of expenses paid on behalf of the child, where the non-custodial parent makes a showing of good cause or necessity. Furthermore, Nebraska courts have the authority to require a custodial parent to submit a sworn report detailing the manner in which the money was used, where the non-custodial parent presents evidence of abusive disregard of the use of child support money.
2. Discretion: In Florida and Oregon courts have the discretion to require, at any time, that the custodial parent account for how he or she is spending child support payments.
3. Notice of Accounting: Both Washington and Oklahoma require specific disclaimer language to be included in child support orders which provide notice to both parties that the custodial parent may be required to submit an accounting to show that the support money received is being spent for the benefit of the child(ren).
4. Mediation: In Colorado, courts have the discretion to refer disputes over how the child support money is being spent to a mediator for resolution. During the mediation the custodial parent may be required to provide an accounting of expenses incurred by his or her child(ren).
In Pennsylvania, the parent who receives the child support payments is not required to account for how that money is spent. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has established statewide guidelines to determine the amount of child support owed, based on factors such as: the monthly net income of the parents and the number of children—ultimately the amount of a child support obligation reflects the reasonable needs of the child and the ability of the obligor to provide support.
Pennsylvania has also developed detailed measures for enforcing child support orders—notably absent from these enforcement provisions is any requirement that the parent who receives child support provide justifications or proof of how he or she spends the payments. Since child support payments may be used for a variety of different expenses—such as food, clothing, childcare, housing, transportation, etc.—it would simply be too daunting to require continued oversight over how child support payments are utilized.
Pennsylvania parents may be able to utilize some of the practices adopted in other states, to petition the court for an accounting of child support. For example, the non-custodial parent may request that the child support order contain provisions similar to those required in Washington and Oklahoma, which would permit the non-custodial parent to request an accounting of expenses. Additionally, a non-custodial parent may seek to modify or terminate a support order by filing a petition specifying that there has been a material and substantial change in circumstances. Therefore, non-custodial parents in Pennsylvania who are concerned about the misuse, abuse, or mismanagement of child support payments are not totally without recourse.