Child Custody in Pennsylvania

When a couple files for divorce in Pennsylvania, whether it's a “mutual consent divorce,” an uncontested “separation divorce,” or a contested “fault divorce,” the welfare of their minor children is going to be one of the most important matters that the court will address as part of the divorce process. Questions about who will care for the children and who will make important decisions about their upbringing can be some of the most contentious issues in any divorce proceeding. In other situations, a relative may seek custody of children where a parent is unable to care for them properly. The LLF Law Firm Family Law Team has years of experience helping parents all across Pennsylvania protect their rights when child custody is at stake. Call us at 888.535.3686 or use our contact form to set up a confidential consultation to learn more about how our experienced family law attorneys can help you protect your rights in a child custody matter.

What Is a Custody Order?

A child custody order is an order issued by a judge of the Court of Common Pleas, typically by a judge assigned to hear domestic relations cases. Child custody orders address issues such as where the children of a divorcing couple will live and who will be responsible for their care. Child custody orders may be temporary, intended to apply only while the divorce proceedings are ongoing, or permanent, issued along with the final divorce decree.

A child custody order will often address a wide range of topics that relate to the care and upbringing of the couple's children, including religion, diet, medical care, school choice, school activities, mental health care, and even forms of discipline. The custody order may include a schedule of which parent the children will be with for holidays, school breaks, and vacations, and the schedule will often vary on a year-by-year basis. It may go into detail about how the children may contact one parent when they are with the other parent and whether the parents are able to contact each other directly. The order may also specify where and when the children will be dropped off or picked up, when it is time for them to move from one parent to the other, and for how long one parent must wait if the other doesn't show up on time.

What Types of Child Custody Are There?

There are two main types of child custody.

Physical custody is defined as “the actual physical possession and control of a child.” It essentially means who will be responsible for the day-to-day care of the child, making sure the child is fed, clothed, and housed in a safe and acceptable way. It includes making sure the child gets to and from school and activities and makes it to their doctor and dental appointments.

Legal custody is defined as the “right to make major decisions on behalf of the child,” such as those that relate to the child's medical care, religious upbringing, and important educational matters.

It's not unusual for one parent to have physical custody of the children for the majority of the time and for both parents to share legal custody of the children or for the child custody order to specify other combinations of physical and legal custody.

Who Decides Child Custody Issues in Pennsylvania?

As noted above, in most counties in Pennsylvania, child custody decisions are made by a judge of the Court of Common Pleas assigned to handle Domestic Relations matters. In some counties, this may be referred to as Family Court. It's important to understand that child custody orders can only come from a judge. Even in cases where a divorcing couple agrees on the terms of both physical and legal custody of their children, a judge will have to review the agreement to make sure that the terms are in the best interest of the couple's children.

That's why it can be enormously helpful to work with an experienced family law attorney from the LLF Law Firm Family Law Team, even in situations where your divorce is amicable. The standards that courts apply to child custody decisions are quite specific, and our attorneys will help you make sure that your agreement has taken into account all of the important factors that the court is required by law to consider when it issues the child custody order in your case.

The Factors Used to Decide Child Custody Issues in Pennsylvania

All judges that issue child custody orders must do so based on “the best interest of the child.” Pennsylvania law provides judges with a long list of factors that are to be considered when determining what custody terms meet that standard. The factors include:

  • Which parent is more likely to allow the children to have “frequent and continuing” contact with the other parent;
  • Any abuse that may have been committed by anybody living in the family's household – particularly where a child was harmed by abuse in the home;
  • The “parental duties” that each parent typically performs in connection with the child's care; and which parent is more likely to attend to the child's needs;
  • Which parent is more likely to have a “loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship with the child;”
  • Any history of drug or alcohol abuse in the household;
  • The mental state of each party, as well as other members of the household;
  • Any attempts made by one parent to turn the child against the other parent;
  • The extent to which extended family may be available to assist with care;
  • The connection between siblings; and for older children, their “well-reasoned preference” to live with one parent or the other.

Judges are required to give heavier weight to those factors that affect the safety of the children.

Challenging a Child Custody Order

Depending on the court, the initial child custody order may come in the form of a recommendation from a hearing officer that the hearing officer makes after meeting with and hearing from the parties on the question of custody. The judge may then accept the hearing officer's recommended terms and issue them as an order of the court.

In other cases, the parties will meet with the judge directly, and where there is a dispute about child custody terms, the judge will conduct a hearing to determine what the terms of the custody order will be.

There are specific ways to challenge a custody order in either case if you disagree with its terms. The LLF Law Firm Family Law Team can help you review child custody orders and contest them in those cases where the judge has failed to properly consider the various factors that courts are required to address when issuing a custody order, including where the court did not have all of the relevant information to support the order.

Changing a Child Custody Order

Child custody orders are not set in stone, but they are court orders. When the circumstances that supported the original order change, it is possible to file a motion asking the judge to revise the custody order. Sometimes, these motions are filed based on an agreement between the parents; other times, one parent asks the court to change the custody order, and the other parent opposes the request.

In either case, the LLF Law Firm Family Law Team can help you, whether you're asking the court to change the custody order or are opposing a request to change it filed by your former spouse. Our experienced attorneys understand the law and the procedures that apply when one or both parties seek to change the terms of an existing custody order.

Consequences of Disobeying a Child Custody Order

A child custody order is just that – an order of the court issued by a judge. If either parent disobeys the terms of the custody order, the parent may be held in contempt of court and fined or even jailed as a result. Before that happens, one parent must file a contempt motion with the court against the disobeying parent.

The LLF Law Firm Family Law Team can help you if you're facing a situation where your former spouse is ignoring or disobeying the terms of a child custody order or if you've been accused by your former spouse of violating a custody order.

The LLF Law Firm Can Help With Child Custody Matters in Pennsylvania

The experienced attorneys from the LLF Law Firm Family Law Team understand Pennsylvania's child custody laws and court procedures. We've helped parents all across Pennsylvania protect their rights and their children in child custody situations, and are ready to help you through what can be a difficult and frustrating part of the separation and divorce process.

Even in situations where both parents agree on most of the major custody issues, we are able to make sure you've considered all of the issues that the judge will take into account when deciding what the final terms of the custody order will be. And where there is a dispute, we'll advise and represent you before the court as the judge decides what is in the best interests of your child or children.

To learn more about how the LLF Law Firm Family Law Team can help you protect your rights and your children's future, call us today at 888.535.3686 or use our contact form to set up a confidential consultation.

Contact a skilled Family Law Team Today!

The LLF Law Firm has unparalleled experience practicing Family Law in Pennsylvania. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you and your family, contact our offices today. Our Family Law Team will go above and beyond the needs for any client and fight for what is fair.

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