Child Support Not Linked to Custody
A father who lost all rights to regular periods of physical custody with his teenage daughter lost his petition to dismiss the child support order, because state law recognizes an overriding obligation on the part of all parents to support their children.
The father’s custody order gave the mother “sole physical and legal custody,” limiting the father’s contact with the child to times and occasions the mother decided were appropriate. In response, the father filed a petition to terminate his support obligations, arguing that the custody order was effectively a termination of his parental rights.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court noted that the case had a long and complex history. The parents had had a tumultuous relationship and separated when the daughter was 10 years old. The father did not see the daughter for more than a year; when he filed for custody rights, the court ordered “reunification counseling,” a process in which a child and parent are reintroduced in a counseling setting after a period of estrangement.
The daughter resisted the counseling, coming to the sessions with a blanket over her head. After five sessions, the counseling was terminated. For the next several years, various attempts were made to advance the father’s custody claims through psychological evaluation and intervention. None of the efforts was successful, and when the daughter was nearly 18 years old, all counseling stopped.
The Superior Court required that the father continue to pay his support obligation, finding that his parental rights had not been terminated and that the daughter had financial needs that both parents were obligated to meet. The court distinguished termination of parental rights from awards of sole custody, noting that when a parent’s rights are terminated, it is as unequivocal as “the death of the child,” and no parental relationship exists following the termination. Sole custody awards, while rare, don’t terminate a parent’s rights. Holding that the duty of child support is “absolute” and is the “equal responsibility of both mother and father,” the court dismissed the father’s appeal and upheld the support order.
Parents whose custodial time is limited often find the unwavering position of the courts on child support to be frustrating. Pennsylvania law is clear in its firm requirement that both parents are responsible to support a child.
Parents who are dissatisfied with limitations on their custody rights must advance their custody claims as best they can in custody proceedings. Parents cannot secure relief from the support court based on the status of their custody case.