By James W. Cushing
Special to the Legal
Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1910.17(a) establishes that a child support order will be modified as of the date the request for the modification is filed. This rule is consistent with the terms of 23 Pa.C.S.A. §4352 regarding retroactive modification of arrearages. Now, generally speaking, the modification of a child support order is requested because of a change in employment, a fluctuation of income, a change in the custodial arrangement of the children and the like. For the most part, the obligation to pay child support for a child terminates when the child reaches the age of 18, but is this termination automatic and, if not, can arrearages accrue after a child reaches the age of 18 if a petition to modify is not filed?
On its face, it would appear that if an obligor does not file to modify the child support – for the purpose of this article in order to terminate it because of emancipation – the order continues and arrearages can accrue after the age of 18.
Very few cases have been reported on the issues described above, and it would seem the Pennsylvania Superior Court case of Holcomb v. Holcomb, 448 Pa.Super.154 (1995), is the leading case on the matter. In Holcomb, the child-at-issue graduated high school in June 1993, thereby becoming emancipated under the law. The father of the child did not file to modify the support order for the child, in order to terminate the order, until June 1994. The relevant question, for the purpose of this article, is whether the child support order should have continued to accrue between June 1993 and June 1994 despite the fact that the child for whom the support was ordered was emancipated the entire time.
The hearing officer’s reasoning was to give the father a retroactive accounting of his support back to June 1993, as if he filed his petition to modify in June 1993, effectively deciding that emancipation automatically takes effect regardless of filing to modify.
The court ruled that, first, it has no power or authority to require the obligee, the mother in this case, to repay any money received after the child-at-issue emancipates. It logically follows, then, that if it cannot order repayment, its power regarding reducing or eliminating arrearages is similarly absent.
Next, the court specifically ruled that it simply has no statutory or procedural warrant or authority to modify support arrearages before the date the father filed a petition to modify regardless of whether the child-at-issue for whom the support has been ordered is emancipated in the interim. Indeed, the court admonished the father, saying “nothing prevented [him] from filing a petition for modification on the date his daughter became emancipated … [therefore] like all successful petitioners who seek modification of a support order, the modification is granted effective as of the date the petition was filed.”
So, for obligors and practitioners alike, it is vitally important to be vigilant in filing petitions to modify support as soon as a child is emancipated; otherwise, a child support order, along with its arrearages, will potentially continue to accrue unabated until some action is taken to stop it.