You have just received a notice and order that your spouse, former spouse, or other parent has filed a complaint for child or spousal support or Alimony Pendente Lite (APL – spousal support pending a divorce), and that you must appear in court for a conference/hearing. This notice gives you a date, time, and place to appear, and a list of documents you must bring to the conference/hearing.
In Allegheny County, both parties first attend a conference before a Domestic Relations Officer (DRO), who uses a computer program to generate a guideline monthly support number based on incomes and other information provided by the parties. The parties are encouraged to reach an agreement, which will then be typed up into a consent order for support and signed by the parties. If the parties don’t reach an agreement, they proceed straight to a hearing that day.
In other counties, like Washington and Westmoreland, if you don’t reach an agreement at the conference, you go home. The DRO issues a recommendation for an order (which goes into effect immediately), and if either party is dissatisfied, they can request a “de novo” hearing (an evidentiary hearing before the hearing officer) which is scheduled at a later date. Sounds like cake, right? You can do this yourself without having to pay a lawyer, right?
Not so fast. The majority of support cases in PA are resolved at the DRO level. Although not all parties consent to the guideline amount of support that the DRO comes up with, many do or at least use the guideline number as a starting point to negotiate. For this reason, it is very important to have a good idea of what the guideline “number” is before the conference.
To prepare for a DRO conference, I always meet with my client ahead of time, have them bring with them all of the documents required by the order, and analyze the facts of the case, my client’s income and the other party’s income if it is available to me, and then run various guideline scenarios on a special computer program designed for that purpose, depending on the facts of that particular case. Although what you can “afford” is not relevant to the amount of the order (many support payers are surprised by this), there are special facts and “deviations” which could affect the amount of the final order.
It is always surprising to me to see how many attorneys show up at a DRO conference without having prepared their own guideline calculations ahead of time. This lack of preparation is a real disservice to the client, and was described at a CLE (continuing legal education) course I recently attended as “malpractice.”
DRO’s are generally very good at what they do, but they are not attorneys. In counties like Allegheny, it is not for a DRO to know or tell the parties when a deviation is appropriate. Plus, DRO’s are human; they sometimes make mistakes. It is very easy for a DRO to mistakenly calculate the guideline monthly support amount as though one party has primary custody of the children, when the parties really have some sort of shared custody arrangement. I’ve also had DRO’s mistakenly input a party’s weekly income as monthly income. It’s easy to imagine how a mistake like this could greatly impact the guideline number that is generated. If you are prepared and have an idea of what the guideline number should be, it is easy to catch a mistake by comparing numbers with the DRO’s.
If the attorney has not prepared their own calculations ahead of time, how can they possibly know if the DRO made a mistake? They don’t know, and as a result, they allow their clients to agree to support orders that can be terribly unfair. Some errors go unnoticed for years, if they are ever caught at all. Everyone knows someone who complains they are paying too much or receiving too little in child support. If they didn’t use an attorney experienced in support issues, maybe their order is incorrect.
If you have a support proceeding coming up, insist that you meet with your attorney ahead of time, so that they can go over the documents with you, prepare a guideline calculation, and then determine if some deviation or special circumstance may apply in your case. If your attorney doesn’t do this, find another attorney.
On the other hand, if you already have a support order established, and it was entered at the DRO level without any preparation beforehand, I strongly encourage you to meet with an attorney to determine if the amount was appropriate considering your circumstances.
Sure, you are entitled to represent yourself, or get your neighbor’s friend who is a real estate attorney to represent you at a support conference/hearing. I wouldn’t fix a broken leg by myself or go to an eye doctor for it. Better to prepare properly rather than trying to fix something wrong later. Sometimes we are unable to fix your mistakes, and you may end up paying a steep price for a bad decision.