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Pennsylvania Child Custody: An Overview

Posted by Joseph Lento | Nov 03, 2016 | 0 Comments

How is child custody defined in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, there are two kinds of child custody: physical custody and legal custody.  Approximately half the states in the nation share Pennsylvania's definition of child custody which distinguishes between physical and legal custody.  In Pennsylvania, child custody laws apply to married parents, separated married parents, and parents who never married. Pennsylvania child custody laws apply to biological parents, and can also apply to non-biological parents depending on the circumstances of the case.  (For purposes of this blog article, parties seeking or granted custody of a child will be referred to as "parents.")

What are the differences between physical child custody and legal child custody in Pennsylvania?

Physical custody is defined as the right to be in actual physical possession and control of a child.  Physical custody also includes the amount of time that a child spends living with a parent.  The rights, responsibilities, and obligations that accompany being a parent who the child lives with are also part of physical custody.  For example, a parent's rights, responsibilities, and obligations, may include: providing housing, food, and clothing for their child; making arrangements for the child to go to and from school; helping their child with homework; providing opportunities for recreation and playtime; spending time with their child; and so forth.

Legal custody is the legal right to make major decisions on the child's behalf.  A parent's right to decide medical, educational, religious issues, and so forth, are all under the umbrella of legal custody. 

Can legal custody of a child be shared in Pennsylvania?

Legal custody of a child can be shared in Pennsylvania.  There are two kinds of legal custody: "sole" legal custody and "shared" legal custody.  As their name implies, sole legal custody is the legal right of one parent, whereas shared legal custody is "shared" between the parents. 

For example, if a parent who has sole legal custody can decide, on their own accord, if their child will receive vaccinations, where their child will attend school, and what religion their child will be raised.  If a parent does not have legal custody, they will not be able to make these major decisions regarding their child.  If parents share legal custody, both parents will have the legal right to make these decisions, and are encouraged, if not arguably expected by Family Court, to work towards coming to agreements regarding the major decisions in their child's life.

As may be expected, however sometimes parents cannot come to an agreement regarding such major decisions.  For example, if one parent wants their child to go to school "A," and the other parent want their child to go to school "B," how is such a custody issue resolved?  When parents share legal custody and they cannot agree, intervention by a Family Court judge, which can take place after petitioning the Court to address the issue in dispute, may be necessary 

What are the different kinds of physical custody in Pennsylvania?

There are five different kinds of physical custody in Pennsylvania.  As with legal custody, physical custody can be shared by the parents, just as one parent can have sole physical custody.Physical custody includes:

  • Sole Physical Custody: One parent has the legal right to exclusive physical custody of the child.
  • Shared Physical Custody: Both parents have the legal right to physical custody of the child.  Shared physical custody will often afford each parent an approximately equal amount of custody time with the child.
  • Primary Physical Custody: One parent, referred to as the "custodial parent," has the legal right to physical custody of the child for the majority of the time.  The other parent is referred to as the "non-custodial parent."
  • Partial Physical Custody: The parent who has partial physical custody has the legal right to physical custody of the child for less than the majority of the time.  This parent is referred to as the "non-custodial parent."
  • Supervised Partial Physical Custody: This limited right is also known as "Supervised Visitation."  A parent will often be limited to supervised visitation of a child if there are concerns regarding the fitness of the parent, if there have been past allegations of abuse towards the child by the parent, if the parent has been absent from the child's life for some time, and so forth.  Supervised visitation can be supervised by whomever may be most appropriate based on the circumstances of the case.  For example, supervision can be done the other parent or an appropriate third party; by Philadelphia Family Court involving Philadelphia custody cases; or by an appropriate agency, often utilized in custody cases taking place in Montgomery County, Delaware County, Bucks County, and Chester County.

Final Thoughts

How Pennsylvania child custody is defined, and as importantly, how it can be awarded to a parent, is critical to understand.  Child custody laws in Pennsylvania have distinctions and implications that must be understood and well-navigated to achieve the best possible result.  If parents cannot come to an agreement regarding the custody of their child, it will be necessary to petition Family Court to address the custody issues in dispute. 

Parents must also understand that after a custody petition is filed in Pennsylvania, it can often take months to have the Court address the custody of a child because Courts' calendars are so full.  With so much at stake and what amounts an arguable "one-shot" opportunity (at least until the next available court date pending a prospective custody modification), it is critical to take the necessary steps so that a parent's desired custody rights can be awarded. 

Pennsylvania Family Courts will always decide child custody based on the "best interests of the child," and a Pennsylvania child custody attorney can help a parent present the necessary evidence and arguments to get the best possible result.

About the Author

Joseph Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience advocating for his Family Law clients in courtrooms in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania counties, as well as New Jersey. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and protects their interests.

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Attorney Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of 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. Family Law Attorney Joseph Lento will go above and beyond the needs for any client and fight for what is fair.

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