Chester County is one of Pennsylvania's three original counties. The county has over 500,000 residents and has a rich history regarding the state's contribution to the Revolutionary War. The county's courthouse is located in West Chester. The court, known as the County Court of Common Pleas, is split into four administrative divisions: the civil court administration, the criminal court administration, the family court administration, and the orphans' court administration. There are 17 judges in total, with 13 operating full time and 4 senior judges. The family court administration handles cases of child and spousal support, custody filing, divorce filing, protection from abuse, and equitable distribution.
Hearings and conferences for matters pertaining to family court occur on the fifth floor of the Chester County Justice Center, located at 201 West Market Street
West Chester, PA 19380.
What To Expect In Court
The custody process in Chester County's court follows a few steps. First and foremost, a custody complaint must be filed with the court. Complaints can be filed for either modification of a prior custody agreement, or to obtain a new custody agreement. Your attorney will be able to help you with the filing. In any matters of family law, it is best to have an attorney in your corner as early as possible, as an attorney can be helpful both in and out of the courtroom. The next step in the custody process is a court-mandated mediation session, with a court-appointed and approved individual acting as mediator. Attorneys may not attend this meeting, though you may want an attorney's coaching prior to the meeting. If the mediation fails, a custody conciliation will occur. The conciliation is decided upon by a Master, a court-appointed individual who acts somewhat like a judge. Your attorney and the opposing party's attorney can attend this hearing. Finally, if all else fails, you will have a hearing in front of a judge.
Much like custody proceedings, support proceedings also follow a multi-step process. A support complaint must be filed for the process to begin. After this, you will have a support conference with yourself, the other party, and an assigned conference officer. After this conference, a temporary support order will be enacted. Following this, either party is welcome to request a hearing before a Master. A hearing with a Master is similar to a hearing in front of judge. Hearings will be evidentiary in nature and recorded as well. At this stage in the process, you will definitely want support from an attorney. An attorney will be familiar with both rules of evidence, and how to navigate through the court of Family Law. After the hearing, the Master will render a decision. Either party will then be able to file an exception, similar to an appeal, to a judge of the court, who will then make the final decision.
Child Custody in Chester County
If you and your soon-to-be-ex cannot agree on the terms of child custody, then it may have to go to a court hearing. At this hearing, the judge will seek to make what they determine is in the best interest of the child. Generally, they'll decide both legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody gives a parent the right to participate in decision-making around issues such as religion, education, and health. Physical custody generally refers to where a child will reside.
In order to discern what is best for the child, the courts will try to understand as much as possible about the divorcing family: family dynamics, relationships among siblings, and child to parent relationships, as well as the health and wellbeing of the parents. There are a variety of factors that they use to help them make this decision. Here are a few of them, although the list is not comprehensive.
- How close will the two parents' residences be? What is the distance from the child's school to the residences?
- Does one of the parents have a history of drug or alcohol abuse?
- Has there been any instances of domestic abuse or sexual abuse that involve either of the parents?
- Are the two parents able to work together for the benefit of their child? Has one parent tried to alienate the other from the child, for a reason other than reasonable safety measures in instances of domestic or sexual abuse?
- What is the availability of each of the parents when it comes to caring for the child? Are there extended family members nearby who will be able to assist?
- Are there any other relevant factors that need to be taken into consideration?
Protection From Abuse Orders in Chester County
A protection from abuse order (PFA) is a civil court order issued by the courts that an individual would request in order to protect themselves from domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, and other similar behaviors. The individual requesting the PFA must have a domestic relationship with the individual named on the PFA.
In Chester County, a protection from abuse order can be filed at the local courthouse if it is during regular court hours. Outside of regular court hours, the PFA would be filed with the magisterial district judge who is on call.
The initial PFA is a temporary PFA that details the level of engagement and interaction that is allowed between the named parties. Generally, they last for seven to ten days, until the final hearing. However, temporary PFAs in Chester County can be extended, usually for no more than 30 days.
If the judge grants a final PFA at the hearing, that may stay in place for up to three years. Individuals who are named in PFAs are entered into a statewide database.
How An Experienced Family Court Attorney Can Help
When it comes to your family, you want the best help you can find to protect them. Joseph D. Lento has unparalleled experience helping families navigate the challenge of family court. If you or a loved one is currently engaged in matters of Family Law in Chester County, contact attorney Joseph D. Lento today at 888.535.3686 to discuss your case.