The words "custody battle" can often conjure to mind unpleasant imagery such as frequent court visits and heated arguments between parents. Custody procedures are much more complicated than what many initially perceive. Many times parents may believe themselves to be the best possible choice, however the courts may see things differently. When it comes down the decision-making phase, the courts will likely consider only the facts, and may even disregard either of the parents' emotional investment in the case. In Pennsylvania, the standard of decision is based upon what is in the child's best interest, however there are also a number of factors that are included in the final decision-making.
Custody is the board term assigned to the legal care-taking of the child or children. Many times, custody can be settled informally, outside of the courtroom, but when a judge gets involved, there are many elements that must be considered before the case makes it to the courtroom. Though custody cases are common between between separated parents, certain other parties may also seek to obtain custody. These parties can include:
- A person that has adopted the child
- A grandparent, under the circumstances of having taken care of the child for 12 months or in the case of a child being at risk of abuse or neglect
- A guardian that has cared for the child for a substantial period of time
Physical Custody VS Legal Custody
One of the most important things to understand in a custody case is the two different types of custody that a parent can have: physical and legal. Physical custody describes the actual physical care-taking of the child. Legal custody describes having the right to make decisions about the child, such as decisions regarding the child's education or religion, as well as any important medical decisions.
Joint/Shared VS Sole Custody
Normally, one would assume that physical and legal custody go hand-in-hand, however, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, many parents may find that even though they have a great degree of physical custody over their child, they may not necessarily have the authority to make all of the legal decisions over them. This is because a number of Pennsylvania custody cases are likely to result in joint custody. Joint or shared custody essentially means that the care of the child will be split between the parents. In joint custody both parents will get significant amounts of time with the child, depending on the agreement or the court's custody order. In general, in the case of shared custody, both parents will also have a certain degree of legal custody as well.
Sole custody, on the other hand, means that a parent will have 100% of physical and legal custody over the child. However, sole custody is rarely assigned. It is much more likely to see custody agreements and orders that end in shared custody. Some parents may receive primary custody, a form of shared custody where one parent will take care of the child a majority of the time, while the other parent will still be able to see the child. There may also be certain rulings on how visitations can take place as well.
There are multiple factors that go into making a custody decision. Judges will consider:
- The parent's likelihood of encouraging contact between the child and the other parent
- Any on-going or past abusive behavior of either the child or the other parent
- Parental duties performed by each party
- Availability of either parent's extended family
- The child's relationship with any siblings
- The child's age, intelligence, maturity, and preference
- Each party's work schedules
- Stability in education, home life, and life in the community
- Ability of the parent to care for the child's emotional needs
- Ability of the parents to care for any special needs that the child has
- Any attempts for one parent to turn the child against the other parent
- The proximity of both parents' residences
- Any history of abuse of drugs or alcohol in the parent, or members of the parent's household
- Mental and physical health of the parent, or members of the parent's household
- The degree of conflict between both parties, and their willingness to cooperate with the opposing party
- The availability to care for the child or provide care arrangements for the child
The bottom line of the court's decision will always be to make a decision that is in the "best interest of the child," based upon the facts presented, as well as an evaluation of the above factors. Factors such as parental income, parent's gender, and any instances of infidelity are not typically taken into account, unless the partner from the infidelity will have a negative effect on the child.
Changing Custody Agreements
Custody agreements, even those that are considered to be "final" are not always set in stone. Depending on the circumstances, you may have an opportunity to change the agreement. When you consider undergoing a custody agreement, you should always have the help of an experienced Family Law attorney. An attorney will help to both mediate the situation as well as walk you through the courtroom. Once a custody agreement is reached, the terms can still be modified outside of the courtroom, but the modifications cannot infringe on either party's rights to the child. If a modification is desired, it is important to get in touch with an attorney to make sure neither party infringes on another's rights. Attorneys can help to make sure a desired outcome can be reached both inside and outside of the courtroom.
Your Day In Family Court
Although custody arrangements can be settled without going to court, when neither party can reach an agreeable custody arrangement, the matters will be left up to the judge. In court, you and your attorney will be able to present all relevant evidence. Unlike a criminal or a civil case, the final say in the matter will be left to a judge instead of a jury. Also, the standard of evidence relies on what is in the "best interest of the child" instead of the usual standards of "a preponderance of evidence" or "beyond a reasonable doubt."
You and your attorney will need to be in attendance during any hearings. In certain cases, your child may have to attend the court hearing as well to present testimony, depending on the nature of your case. The judge will always take into account the above factors, and if there is any reason for not including that factor the judge will notify the parties involved about the reasoning behind the decision. It is important to speak to an attorney as soon as you can in order to start building a strong case. No matter what your emotional investment in the situation is, the court only sees the facts and the laws, and the judge will make a decision accordingly. With the help of an attorney, you will be able to leverage the case to secure a favorable outcome for you and your child.
Custody agreements will determine primary parent custody if necessary, as well as any visitation agreements. These agreements are to be upheld by both parties until the custody agreement is modified, or an incident that violates the terms of the agreement occurs.
Failing To Uphold A Custody Arrangement
A custody agreement is essentially a legally binding court order that the parties involved must adhere to. Failure to do so can result in many possible negative effects such as fines, further punitive court orders, or in severe cases, even jail time. The outcomes of a failure to uphold a custody agreement will be determined by a judge, and can vary in severity, depending on circumstance. Both parties must adhere to the agreement, even if one of the parties appears to be more prone to endangering the child than the other. Also, primary caretakers assigned through a custody agreement are not permitted to relocate far away from the other party without first obtaining the consent of the other party, or the consent of the court.
If you or a loved one is involved in Family Law matters in Pennsylvania, contact attorney Joseph Lento today. Family Court can be a stressful and unforgiving place for anyone, but having an attorney at your side to help walk you through the process can be a great benefit. There is no reason to agree to an unfavorable or unfair custody agreement. Contact attorney Joseph D. Lento today, and let us help you through your custody proceedings.