How do I file for child custody in Delaware County, PA?
To initiate a child custody proceeding in Delaware County Family Court, a party must prepare and file a Complaint for Custody (primary or partial custody), regardless of a custody count's inclusion in a Divorce Complaint (or Answer and Counterclaim). Once the Complaint for Custody has been filed with the Delaware County Office of Judicial Support, a hearing date will be scheduled by Delaware County Court Administration. Again, a hearing date regarding custody will not be scheduled based on a custody count's inclusion in a Divorce Complaint.
When a custody count was included in the Divorce Complaint (or Answer and Counterclaim), there is no fee for filing of the Custody Complaint. When a custody count was included in the Divorce Complaint, the divorce docket should be used. If filing for Custody when a custody count has not been included in the Divorce Complaint, a filing fee is charged. The Complaint should not include a docket number as it will be assigned a number by Delaware County Court Administration after filing.
Delaware County does not require any information in the Custody Complaint that is different from the template found in Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1910.15(a). A party's attorney must be certain, however, along with following the template found in Pa.R.Civ.P. 1910.15(a), to include the 206(b) Form and a blank Order of Court found in 1910.15(c).
The Custody Complaint must be filed with an original plus one (1) copy for each party and each person "not a party to the proceedings who has physical custody of the child or claims to have custody or visitation rights with respect to the child." Each named party and each non-party with possible rights with respect to the child must be served with the Complaint. For purposes of custody in Delaware County, a "party" is most often child's parent, but grandparents can also file for custody, and also third parties under the legal doctrine of in loco parentis.
Where do I file for child custody in Delaware County, PA?
After filing the Complaint for Custody at the Delaware County Office of Judicial Support, the Complaint must be delivered to Delaware County Court Administration for assignment of a Hearing Officer and scheduling of a child custody "Initial Conference." As with all other filings, all other parties must be served with the initial conference notification.
The Delaware County Office of Judicial Support is located at 201 W. Front Street #126, Media, PA 19063. The phone number for the Office of Judicial Support is 610-891-4370.
What happens at the child custody "Initial Conference" in Delaware County, PA?
The "Initial Conference" (a version of a "Conciliation Conference" as the proceeding is known in other Pennsylvania counties) is intended to be an "abbreviated" presentation of the child custody case. At the Initial Conference, the party's attorney's will present their respective positions with regards to the custody disagreement(s). The attorneys' clients are present, but a majority of the presentation will be conducted by the parties' attorneys. The child or children are rarely present at the Initial Conference in Delaware County. Furthermore, while a party's attorney may have the child available in the event the Master wishes to speak to the child, it is highly unusual for that to occur at this stage of the proceedings in matters of custody in Delaware County.
The purpose of the Initial Conference is to encourage a settlement/agreement between the parties with regards to the custody schedule. To that end, the parties' attorneys will present their respective positions to the Hearing Officer with the parties provided an opportunity to address the Court when appropriate. After said presentations are completed, the Hearing Officer will inform the parties and their respective attorneys of his or her likely position with regards to the dispute(s). Using same as a guide, the parties and the parties' attorneys are encouraged to vacate the hearing room to attempt reaching an amicable resolution. If the parties are unable to reach a resolution, the Hearing Officer will typically: 1) issue a Temporary Order and schedule the matter for an extended hearing; or 2) keep the current schedule intact and schedule the matter for an extended hearing. When the matter is to be scheduled for an extended hearing (or simply re-listed for a review), the date will be assigned at the conclusion of the conference and a continuance form will be completed and signed by the Master with copies provided to the parties.
If a child custody agreement is reached, it is drafted by an attorney for either party on the Temporary Custody Order form provided with the non-drafting attorney being afforded the opportunity to review the custody agreement to ensure the agreement was properly memorialized. Once the agreed upon Order is completed, the attorneys for each party should review it with their client to ensure they understand and agree to the terms. The parties and each party's attorney will sign the agreed upon Order and same will be entered as an Order of Court once signed by the Hearing Officer.
When an agreement is reached, an attorney for either party may wish to schedule a review of the current custody schedule (called a "re-list") to ensure it is in the best interests of the child. A re-list will almost always be scheduled, but the date on which it is scheduled may have to be decided by the Master given the specifics of the situation and a possible disagreement as to how much time will pass before the next hearing.
Can a custody master change primary custody at the Initial Conference in Delaware County, PA?
It must be noted that if a change in primary custody is requested by either party, the attorney for the respondent must understand that only a Delaware County Court of Common Pleas Judge can change primary custody. Because of this, the appropriate objections should be noted. At that stage, a notation on the Custody Order form should be made, and the matter will then be assigned to a judge by the Delaware County Court Administrator's Office.
What happens at a child custody "Extended Hearing" in Delaware County, PA?
If a Delaware County child custody case is scheduled for an "Extended Hearing," the hearing itself will most likely be more formal than the child custody Initial Conference. Depending on the specifics of the situation, testimony by the parties, presentation of evaluation experts, child testimony (if desired), and/or testimony of non-party witnesses may occur. Following the hearing, the Master will issue written findings. Even though an Extended Hearing is more formal in nature, the hearing still may not occur "on the record." It is in the Hearing Officer's discretion whether to conduct the hearing on the record.
The Child Custody Order in Delaware County, PA
Delaware County uses a five-page multi-part form entitled "Temporary Custody Order" for use with Hearing Officer proceedings. The Custody Order used by Delaware County is a carbon copy document allowing for each party to receive a copy of the Order itself before leaving the hearing. The Custody Order will be handwritten and otherwise completed by either party's attorney or the Hearing Officer at the conclusion of argument. On occasion, however, the matter(s) may be taken under advisement by the Hearing Officer with no Temporary Custody Order entered at the conclusion of the Hearing, but rather completed at a later date and time.
As previously stated, if the Order is an agreement of the parties, each party will sign where appropriate, along with the parties' respective attorneys and the Hearing Officer. It should be noted that all Custody Orders are considered temporary in nature, and as such, a party can theoretically file a Modification Petition at any time after the Order is entered.
Also included on the Custody Order form is a notification that the parties have ten (10) days to appeal the decision. If the Order is not an agreement of the parties, once said Order is entered it will be sent to a Delaware County Court of Common Pleas judge for his or her signature. However, the judge will not sign the Order until the ten (10) appeal period has run without appeal. (If a party refuses to sign the Custody Order, that party's attorney should also refrain from signing the Custody Order.)
If the Order is an agreement of the parties, however, the judge may sign the Order prior to the appeal period running. While it is possible that the judge will not sign the Order until after the ten (10) day appeals period has run, it is important to remember that an agreement of the parties cannot be appealed. If a party is not pleased with the Custody Order in an instance where they indicated it was an agreement, a Petition for Modification must be filed.
Once the Order is signed by the judge, the Delaware County Office of Judicial Support will send a copy of said Order to all parties involved in the proceeding or to their respective attorneys.
Also included on the Custody Order form are various directives that the Hearing Officer may include in the Order if the situation so warrants. For example, the Hearing Officer can direct the parties to comply with any of the following conditions: custody evaluation; drug testing; co-parent counseling; and/or family counseling.
Can a party be drug-tested in a Delaware County custody case?
Regarding co-parenting counseling, note that Local Rule 1915.19 (mandating co-parenting counseling) has been vacated. With respect to ordering drug testing, the Master has the authority — on his or her own motion or upon request of a party — to immediately send a party to Diagnostic Services (located in the basement of the Delaware County Court House) for drug testing. It is imperative that a party understands the possibility of a drug test being ordered and administered the same day of the Custody Conference. Additionally, a Master may order any or all parties to obtain hair follicle testing.
Delaware County Child Custody Attorney | Media Child Custody Lawyer
The stakes can be high when Delaware County Family Court decides the custody of a child or children. Whether the petitioner or respondent in a child custody case in Media, a Delaware County child custody attorney can help you navigate the steps required, and can help you achieve your goals related to the custody of your child or children. Contact attorney Joseph D. Lento today to learn how he can help.