Philadelphia Domestic Relations Court (aka 34 S. 11th Street) can be a frustrating waste of time for some or an empowering opportunity to obtain justice for others. YOUR particular experience depends on your level of preparation BEFORE you get there. Obtaining court-ordered child support is not difficult, but you need to know what you are getting into when you get tired of reasoning with the other party and showing him/her that life is much simpler without having to spend your days in DR Court. Nevertheless, when disagreements and stone walling arise…head straight to 34 S. 11th street.
Please note…You should try to get to 34 S. 11th Street as EARLY as possible. There is usually a line forming out of the door and into the street and you have to go through a security check complete with a metal detector. Also you’ll have to surrender your cell phone (unless it is plastic and can avoid detection). You can also consider going after work on Wednesdays when the court is open until 7:00 pm, and usually EMPTY.
1st STEP: FILING A CHILD SUPPORT COMPLAINT. This is a simple procedure that usually ends up taking no more than two hours of your time. Just make sure when you do file, you are absolutely sure that you are ready to follow through with it. It can be very time consuming. Under the law both parents are responsible for providing financially for a child. Be sure to have as much information about the other party as you can provide especially a current address and any employment information. Also bring any document that established that the other party acknowledged paternity. ****Attorney Alert**** You don’t really need one yet !!!!
2ND STEP: ESTABLISHMENT CONFERENCE. Okay, unfortunately, the drama begins here. There’s a waiting area where people sit on top of each other. Strangers with varying levels of etiquette and personal hygiene will be staring in your face. Bring reading material.
The Conference Officer is a city employee, i.e. “the bureaucrat.” By now, your basic information has been entered into the computer system. The bureaucrat sits behind a desk, while the parties sit beside each other. The bureaucrat will verify your information and type additional information into the computer, not really looking anywhere other than their computer screen.
First Issue: Paternity
If the party being sued for child support is male, the issue of paternity will arise if there is no information that he acknowledged that he is the father of the child. The “system” will have this information if the father signed paperwork in the hospital, acknowledging Paternity. Please note, Pa. Law no longer requires a mother to include the name of a father on the child’s birth certificate. Doesn’t make much sense, but this is the law.
If paternity was never determined, the bureaucrat will ask the father if he will acknowledge paternity by signing an acknowledgement of paternity form. If he refuses, the hearing is over. All parties, including the child, are ordered to come back to 34 S. 11th Street for DNA testing. If the father does agree that the child is his, he is made to sign a form indicating that he agrees he is the father.
Second Issue: Amount of Support Order
The bureaucrat then takes the parties’ pay stubs (if both bring them) and enter the information into a computer which magically spits out “the figure.” The figure is the amount of child support that must be paid based upon the Pa. child support guidelines. Okay, now here comes the whooping and hollering when one party doesn’t want to pay the amount. Comments range from, “I’m not ‘bout to pay all that…I got a car payment,” or “Sheeeeeeet…I look like I got a contract with the Sixers?” to “I’m not paying that…” Don’t feed into the comments. There is no need to say a word, at this point. Please note, the bureaucrat usually generates the wrong amount. It is usually lower than the correct amount. In light of that fact, and the loud complaints, the bureaucrat, at this point, informs both parties that if they are not satisfied with the amount they can request a Master’s Hearing.
The party being sued for support may claim to be not working. Have no fear, the court has something for that situation. The Master’s Hearing ……****Attorney Alert*** None needed at Support Conference but if you are scheduled for a Master’s Hearing you need to start looking for a good attorney.
3RD STEP : MASTER’S HEARING
At the conclusion of the Establishment Conference, where one is requested, both parties will be given ‘notice’ for the Master’s Hearing. This notice tells you the date, time and location of the Master’s Hearing and most important, the name of the ‘Support Master’ who will be hearing your case.
As soon as you leave the Establishment Conference, start looking for a good FAMILY LAW attorney. Now is not the time to look up that attorney who handled your cousin’s car accident case or your girlfriend’s brother’s criminal case. The bar association route might be too costly. You need to start asking friends who have or had support cases who they hired. Consult with different attorneys. PLEASE take the time to go to the Pennsylvania Attorney Discipline website (www.padisciplinaryboard.org ) to see if the attorney has had any prior….ummm…issues, like complaints from clients whose money they took and didn’t show up in court….Please note if an attorney wants to charge you more than $500.00 for a Master’s Hearing, thank him or her for their time and leave. It is an important step in obtaining child support but $300.00 to $500.00 would be a fair figure considering most Master’s Hearings take no longer than 30 minutes. If you have a complicated case that requires more than the allotted 30 minutes be prepared to pay more.
The Support Master is an attorney who hears testimony from both parties. The Master begins by questioning the party who filed the support complaint. The Master’s Hearing is recorded. The Master will ask various questions about your finances. Do not get offended. They need this information and will be simultaneously entering it into a computer to calculate the amount of support due under the Pa. guidelines. Be sure to have proof of your income, day care expenses, summer camp expenses, contracts for dance lessons and/or private school.
Next the Master will allow the other party, the ‘Respondent’ to question you. If he has an attorney, the attorney will do the questioning. If not, the Respondent will attempt to cross-examine you and things quickly deteriorate into Def Comedy Jam. The Respondent has NO CLUE what they are doing and typically ask questions designed to embarrass you, like “How much you spend every week getting your hair and nails done?” OBJECTION….SUSTAINED. “Is is true you don’t let me claim Courtney on my income taxes?” ANSWER…SHE DOESN’T LIVE WITH YOU. “How much do you be gettin’ from your other baby father?”At this point the Master will curtly ask, “Do you have any relevant questions?” The Respondent typically does not and the hearing moves along. Even if the Respondent has an attorney do not be surprised if the attorney used the same line of irrelevant questions designed to embarrass, harass or make you angry enough to start cussing or becoming belligerent. Most of these attorneys are incompetent. The Master disregards irrelevant testimony. Keep your cool. Confine your responses to one word answers as much as possible.
The Master will then question the Respondent, asking the same questions he or she asked you. The Respondent is required to present EVIDENCE of his income, pay stubs, pay checks, Income Tax Returns, W-2 forms, Social Security Disability Paperwork (if Respondent claims a disability), Dept. of Public Welfare info. (if Respondent claims to be on public assistance) or SSI information is evidence. Letters from dubious people explaining various things, whatever Respondent is claiming…is not considered good evidence.
Next, the Master will allow you, the ‘Petitioner’ to cross-examine the other party about his finances. If you have an attorney or if you are without one, NOW IS THE TIME TO ASK ALL THE QUESTIONS YOU WANT ABOUT ANY INFORMATION YOU HAVE ABOUT THE RESPONDENT’S FINANCES. Everything is fair game, under the table job money, money from selling weed, money from gambling, money from hitting the number, and money from that second job he thinks you don’t know about. If you have an attorney, make sure you give him any and all information regarding your knowledge of the Respondent’s finances BEFORE, the Master’s Hearing so that you are not in there passing notes or pulling on your attorney’s arm while they are trying to question the Respondent.
Attempted slickness at the Master’s Hearing:
Respondent: “I’m unemployed…”
Solution #1: If Respondent is receiving unemployment compensation, this is considered income and the court can issue an attachment for the amount of the ordered child support.
Solution #2: Ask the Master to determine Respondent’s “imputed income.” The Master will do this anyway. What is means is that the Master will question the seemingly hapless Respondent about his educational level and background, prior jobs, and relative health. The Mater will then determine based upon those criteria how much Respondent SHOULD BE EARNING. The support order will be based upon that amount. The Court maintains a ‘Networking for Jobs” program that unemployed individuals are referred to. They refuse to participate at their at their own risk.
Respondent: “I gotta pay child support to my other son/daughter’s mother.” If there is another support order issued by any court within any county in Pa or stets in the U.S. it will be in the computer system and the Master will consider it in forming a support order. What also occurs is the Respondent comes in with a letter from the other mother(s) indicating (supposedly) the fact that Respondent pays that mother X dollars to support the child(ren) “outside of court.” This is where credibility is important. I have not seen a situation where such a claim was deemed valid.
Respondent: “Look I take care of my kid(s). I bought……” These words are typically uttered while Respondent pulls out various receipts are other “proof” of having purchased items for the child(ren). Unless Respondent is pulling out a cancelled check which has child support written on the memo line, the items purchased, assuming that the receipts are legit, are considered gifts. Having these receipts make the Respondent feel that they have fulfilled some of their parental duties.
Respondent: “I’m disabled…I can’t work” This claim can come up at any time during the process of trying to obtain child support, even after the order is entered. A true disability that prevents a person from working is required to be established by medical proof. There may also be situations where the “disabled” person is required to file for social security disability and bring proof back to court. If a person is granted SSD, their child(ren) are also given a monthly check.
Respondent is receiving Public Assistance: This situation has to be delved into by the Master or your attorney. It is not too often that an able bodied man of working age is granted cash assistance, unless he has a child(ren) in his household whom he is providing for.
At the end of the questioning the Master will explain to the parties that his/her decision will be sent to them in the mail. So, NO, you won’t get a figure at the end of the Master’s Hearing. The Temporary order will remain in effect. You will get the Master’s recommendation in the mail.
I wish that I could say that this is the end of the matter, you get your support order and live happily ever after but….that wouldn’t be true. Child Support Orders are “modifiable.” This means that at any time either party can seek a modification of the order. Most modifications are for increases or decreases. The Court will always entertain them and you will have the pleasure of starting this entire process over again.
If either party disagrees with the amount of the support order determined by the Master, they can request an Exceptions Hearing before a judge. You definitely need an attorney for this. The Exception Hearing must be based on a claim that the Master made a mistake in his/her application of the law. So the issue is legal, not the fact that a party doesn’t like the amount of the order.
Theresa D. Brunson, Esquire spent a decade as a Philadelphia City Prosecutor. Currently in private practice she continues to work within the court system as a law clerk for a State judge. After having tried thousands of cases Ms. Brunson is well versed in all aspects of the law.
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