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Gifts Not “Income” for Pennsylvania Child Support Orders

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania held that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) applied an erroneous definition of “income,” to withdraw funds from a prisoner’s trust account.

On May 26, 2005, a trial court issued an order to withhold income for child support against Pennsylvania prisoner Keith Fisher. The order directed DOC “to withhold $288 per month from Fisher’s income. The order specified that it was to be deducted from pay cycles, and it was limited to money earned.”

To carry out the order, DOC applied a policy which defined “income” to include “all funds credited to an inmate’s account regardless of source,” while the statutory definition of “income” is limited to “compensation for services,” 23 Pa.C.S. § 4302. DOC determined that its policy “permitted it to attach a maximum of 50% of the balance in his inmate account as long as it remained above $10.”

“As of September, 2005, Fisher had received $14.40 in income and $300 as personal monetary gifts. Although Fisher had accumulated a total of $364.40 in income, the Department only collected $110 pursuant to the Support Order, leaving his account with a balance of $172.02.” Fisher later received $21.85 in income and $411 in gifts, but before the DOC’s monthly deduction, his “account balance had been reduced to $45.71, allowing the Department to collect only a total of $35.71 because any further deduction would have rendered it below $10.”

Fisher challenged the DOC fund seizures, arguing that “income” within the meaning of § 4302 does not include gifts, and therefore, DOC violated his due process rights under the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions. DOC argued that it “considers all of the funds in an inmate account to be ‘income,’ including monetary gifts which are commingled with other funds” because “ it would be administratively difficult to track the source of funds to ensure that only ‘income’ as defined by § 4302 of the Code is withheld.”

The court rejected DOC’s argument, holding that “while it may be administratively difficult for the Department to track ‘income’ from other funds in an inmate account, administrative difficulty does not give it jurisdiction to supplant the Support Order and the Code by applying the Policy’s definition of ‘income’ in complying with the Support Order.” Finding that the “Order was clear that it only sought attachment of Fisher’s funds derived from ‘income,’ which does not include gifts,” the majority ordered DOC to cease using the Policy’s definition of “income,” and to comply instead with § 4302’s definition.

The dissent disagreed, finding that “under the majority’s decision, no payments will be made to the underlying support orders. Thus, arrearages increase for the inmate. As a result, the underlying obligations are never dealt with, problems multiply, and the perception of the courts as a source of redress is diminished. This makes no sense.” See: Fisher v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania DOC, No. 514 M.D. 2005 (Commonwealth Ct. of PA 6/8/07).

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Related legal case

Fisher v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania DOC