On June 19, 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in an Opinion that could be described as unanimous, ruled that the trial court was correct when it decided that it could deviate from presumptive minimum guidelines in a high-end child support case. The case has been floating about for quite some time. We wrote about the Superior Court decision back on December 7, 2016 and we provided the incomes the Delaware County Court had to look at:
The case arises from a property settlement agreement which stated that the parties would exchange tax returns and calculate child support annually based on respective net income “and Pennsylvania guidelines, provided,…either party may apply to the court to adjust child support…based on relevant factors.” Those last few words may have made a world of difference because if the sentence ended without reference to “relevant factors”, the obligor may have been stuck with the presumptive minimum contained in the guidelines. Recall that the right to support as a matter of contract in a divorce setting may yield a far different result than one decided in support court.
One cannot fault the majority opinion of Justice Baer, which is itself, lauded by the concurring opinion of Justice Wecht. The line of reasoning is fairly clear. Child support guidelines are premised upon economic studies of child needs. However, as income climbs higher and higher, needs become less easily calculated. When it adopted “guidelines” for families netting more than $30,000 a month, the Court merely extrapolated and largely speculated about those needs. So, even though there is a guideline amount and that guideline amount in Hanrahan, produced a support order in the range of $60,000 a month, the parties should have the right to make a record about the specific needs of such families and dip into the evidentiary well known as “lifestyle.”
What concerns this writer is, just what is a trial court to do with this “lifestyle” question and just how far does the evidence go? Needless to say, the law seems quite clear that if I make $7,500 a month and my ex brings down $2,500, my “lifestyle” testimony is not going to get very far. I have to fit my lifestyle around the guidelines, and unless my kids have some very unusual needs, their “lifestyle” is not going to get any more consideration than mine or that of the prodigal mother.
But once the income balloon ascends above 30,000 feet, the door of Melzer v. Witsberger appears to spring open despite the language of Mascaro v. Mascaro. This means inquiries into “lifestyle” and that is a pit, which has no bottom. The facts in Hanrahan illustrate the point. Look at Mr. Hanrahan’s income. A million or two a year invites travel on timeshare jets or acquisition of a reasonably fancy Cessna. Get to four million in income and now a Learjet 35 falls into play. As I reach the million a month club, I have arrived in Gulfstream territory although my plane will probably be an older model and I may not be able to lug around more than seven friends and family.
Are judges supposed to hear this? Moreover, what wisdom can their life experience impart when the pinnacle of their lifestyle is an upgrade to first class on a scheduled commercial airline? At what level of income do we abandon commercial aviation or propeller driven transportation in favor of jet aircraft? In addition, what do we do in instances where the income is a one off; e.g., a lottery win or sale of a business, or the magnificent income is not sustained. Once children have gone “private”, can we ask them to downgrade back to commercial aviation?
I have participated in these trials and suffice to say, after a few hours they become tedious. The obligors love to wax on about how frugal they can be and “in touch” with their humble beginnings, whether real or imagined. Obligees remember seeing Parsifal from the box seats at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and knocking back glasses of Krug Clos du Mesnil at intermission with the Obligor before the champagne and the marriage soured. The judge has to listen to how much the fourteen year old adores Wagner and the “Ring Cycle” while the judge wonders whether the “ring cycle” is a setting on the Whirlpool in his laundry room.
Reason tells us that $2,000 a day is a lot of child support. The Supreme Court was right to say that in settings such as this, expenses do matter. But, in communications I have had with lawyers who lived through the days of Melzer, there is fear that unless someone limits the “needs” and “expense” testimony, we will have courts hearing days of testimony. Taxpayers in a setting will underwrite the judicial time where this obligor’s 2012 daily income rivaled the annual household income of the mean Pennsylvania household. That is not good for anyone, except perhaps the lawyers asking whether little Rachel eschews cotton as she has grown used to cashmere.