Pennsylvania Child Custody Laws

Pennsylvania Child Custody

Here are several critical things to know if you’re engaged in a child custody action in Pennsylvania.

What are the Types of Child Custody in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania courts have several options when awarding custody.  After jurisdiction to hear a case has been determined, the court or the parents must decide who has physical custody and legal custody.

Physical custody determines where a child will live the majority of the time.  The parent who gets physical custody is said to be the custodial parent, and the other parent is the noncustodial parent.  The noncustodial parent may still have the child live with them during some parts of the year, but this is known as parental visitation.

Legal custody involves which parent will make significant decisions in the child’s best interests.  That will affect medical, schooling, and religious decisions, as well as many others.

Physical custody and legal custody are not mutually exclusive but are decided separately in a divorce.  Often, both parents will have rights and responsibilities for each in what is known as joint custody.  Children will split their time between parents, and the parents may each decide on legal custody issues based on an agreed-upon set of circumstances delineated in the custody order.

Sometimes, when a parent cannot fulfill their physical and legal custody obligations, the court will award sole custody.  One parent, and one parent only, will be responsible for all parts of the child’s life.  This may be where domestic violence, criminal activity, or substance abuse is part of the situation.

Courts are reluctant to grant sole custody because the presumption is that a child benefits from regular and ongoing contact with both parents.  In some sole custody situations, it may be possible for the noncustodial parent to have some visitation rights still.  But this type of shared physical custody may be monitored with supervised visits.

Supervised visitation means a third party must supervise the non-custodial parent’s visitation. That person can be a relative, friend, or social worker assigned by the courts.

Some parents may also agree on bird’s nest custody.  In this arrangement, the child stays in the same home, but the parents rotate in and out according to an agreed-upon schedule.  This provides more stability than moving a child to different residences all the time.

Split custody is sometimes awarded. Courts are reluctant to do this because there is a presumption that siblings should stay together. However, split custody may make sense in certain situations.

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Determining Child Custody in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania child custody laws state that courts use several factors to determine fair and just custody determination.  Those factors include:

  • Which party is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between the child and another party?
  • Is there present and past abuse committed by a party or member of the party’s household, and is there a continued risk of harm to the child or an abused party?
  • What are the parental duties performed by each party on behalf of the child?
  • What is the need for stability and continuity in the child’s education, family, and community life?
  • What is the availability of extended family?  The court will consider if a parent has the assistance of an extended family nearby.
  • What are the child’s sibling relationships?  Judges consider blood relations and each child’s emotional relationship with their siblings.
  • What is the child’s preference, based on their maturity and judgment?
  • Has either parent turned the child against the other parent, except in cases of domestic violence where reasonable safety measures are necessary to protect the child from harm? Alienation of the children’s affections is a major concern for Pennsylvania courts.
  • Which parent is more likely to maintain a loving, stable, consistent, and nurturing relationship with the child?
  • Which parent is more likely to attend to the child’s daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational, and special needs?
  • What is the proximity of the parties’ residences?  This could directly impact the custody arrangement or frequency of visitation.
  • What is the availability of each party to care for the child or their ability to make appropriate child-care arrangements vs. work requirements?
  • What is the level of conflict and cooperation between the parties?
  • What is the history of drug or alcohol abuse of a parent or other members of each parent’s household?
  • What is a parent’s and other household members’ mental and physical condition?
  • What are any other relevant factors that should be considered?

Courts strongly prefer that parents come up with an agreement on their own which will then be reviewed and approved by the court.

Parents often use mediators, family law attorneys, or other third-party professionals to help them find common ground.  When this does not happen, the court will decide all conflicts.  Even when parents agree, it’s often a good idea to have a third party review the situation to make sure parents know their legal rights and responsibilities.

Under Pennsylvania law, the custody agreement will always be approved by the court.  The advantage of turning a custody agreement into a court order is that the court can force the parties to follow it.  If there is no custody order, both parents have an equal right to custody, and either can lawfully take physical possession of the child at any time.

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What is The Best Interests of the Child Standard?

Although several factors are used to determine custody in Pennsylvania, agreements are created by the overriding principle of the child’s best interests.  That means any agreement or parts of an agreement must be put in place to benefit the child instead of an agreement that benefits the parents.

This is why courts are concerned about harmful elements of a custody arrangement, including domestic violence and substance abuse.  Courts automatically assume when these are present, the child’s best interests are not well represented.

At what age can a child decide which parent to live with in Pennsylvania?

There are no specific laws that state a child’s age.  Children never get to decide which parent they want to live with fully.  Instead, if the child is old and mature enough, the court will consider the child’s preference and consider that when deciding custody.  However, the court has the final say.  The child does not.

Read More:  What to Say (and Not to Say) to Your Children in a Divorce

What to Know About Parenting Plans

Parenting plans are detailed instructions that govern each child’s physical and legal custody.  Pennsylvania child custody cases require a plan as part of a custody action and prefer detailed plans, so there is less chance for disagreements and confusion later.

Because this is a legal and binding document, it’s probably a good idea to retain an experienced attorney familiar with Pennsylvania child custody laws to help draft a plan.  However, parents can also prepare their own plan, but it must follow state guidelines and be reviewed and approved by the court.

Parenting plans typically contain the following:

  • Physical custody, including the number of overnight visits for each parent.
  • How are legal custody issues decided?
  • What are the child support payment amounts and recourse if a parent falls behind?
  • Parental access to each child’s records and information
  • Exchanging children, including when, where, and time of day
  • Transporting children for visitation and other necessary movements
  • Vacations, holidays, and school break schedules
  • How to handle travel approval and advance notifications
  • A child’s ability to communicate with both parents
  • How does communication between parents take place?
  • Contact with other family members and friends
  • How are expenses handled?  These could be related to tuition, medical costs, school activities, hobbies, and recreational activities.
  • Children’s use of technology and online activities
  • Handling special needs for the children as they arise
  • How to address child discipline and mental health issues
  • Guidelines when a new parental partner is involved
  • Grooming and dress guidelines (extreme haircuts, make-up, etc.)
  • Drinking or drug use in the presence of the children

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How Do I Modify a Pennsylvania Custody or Visitation Order?

Pennsylvania custody awards are permanent until they are modified or when a child reaches age 18.  However, circumstances often change and so it is rare for one custody order to remain in effect for the child’s entire time.

Significant changes in a parent’s or child’s life may require a modification of the current custody order.  Changes may include a health issue, job change, domestic violence or substance abuse, a child’s educational needs change, or if a parent wants to move to a different part of the state or out of Pennsylvania.

Either parent can file a motion with the court to request a modification, but the court is bound by the factors in the original order and must still decide if there is enough of a change that affects a child’s best interests.

Custody order modifications can include changes to custody status, a visitation agreement, and child support payments.

Pennsylvania Child Custody FAQs

Can grandparents get custody in Pennsylvania?

In some cases, grandparents can be awarded custody.  This may include supervised physical custody or partial physical custody.  Courts will award custody to grandparents:

  • If the child has lived with them for 12 months or more and the action is filed within 6 months of removal
  • If the parent to whom they are related has died
  • If the parents are separated for at least six months
  • If parents aren’t capable of caring for children due to abuse, violence, or criminal actions.

Non-parents, such as aunts, uncles, or friends, can also sue a parent for custody in some situations.

What if a parent violates a custody order?

A parent who disobeys a custody order may be held in contempt of court or charged with a crime.  This could lead to fines, jail time, or other possible penalties, including a custody order modification.  When a child is in immediate danger, police may also step in for the child’s safety.

Does anyone pay child support if parents share custody?

Sometimes. Calculating the disparity in parties’ incomes determines alimony and child support obligations. If a child spends 40% or more overnights per year with a noncustodial parent, a rebuttable presumption exists that the noncustodial parent is entitled to a reduction in their child support obligation.  Support issues are based more on the financial aspects of a relationship and less on physical custody and visitation issues.

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