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!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento is a veteran of one of the nation's busiest family courts with nearly 20 years' experience passionately helping families. By day, he worked in the trenches of family court, and at night, he studied the law. He helped countless families while working at family court, and he went on to become an attorney, dedicating his law practice to continuing the work he started years earlier. Mr. Lento's experience both behind the scenes and on the front lines allows him to understand a client's family law matter from all angles, and allows him to find and employ the most effective strategies to get favorable outcomes for any client. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide. In the courtroom and in life, attorney Joseph D. Lento stands up when the bell rings!


There are no comments for this post. Be the first and Add your Comment below.

Leave a Comment

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.

This website was created only for general information purposes. It is not intended to be construed as legal advice for any situation. Only a direct consultation with a licensed Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York attorney can provide you with formal legal counsel based on the unique details surrounding your situation. The pages on this website may contain links and contact information for third party organizations - the Lento Law Firm does not necessarily endorse these organizations nor the materials contained on their website. In Pennsylvania, Attorney Joseph D. Lento represents clients throughout Pennsylvania's 67 counties, including, but not limited to Philadelphia, Allegheny, Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Chester, Dauphin, Delaware, Lancaster, Lehigh, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Schuylkill, and York County. In New Jersey, attorney Joseph D. Lento represents clients throughout New Jersey's 21 counties: Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Essex, Gloucester, Hudson, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Passaic, Salem, Somerset, Sussex, Union, and Warren County, In New York, Attorney Joseph D. Lento represents clients throughout New York's 62 counties. Outside of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, unless attorney Joseph D. Lento is admitted pro hac vice if needed, his assistance may not constitute legal advice or the practice of law. The decision to hire an attorney in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania counties, New Jersey, New York, or nationwide should not be made solely on the strength of an advertisement. We invite you to contact the Lento Law Firm directly to inquire about our specific qualifications and experience. Communicating with the Lento Law Firm by email, phone, or fax does not create an attorney-client relationship. The Lento Law Firm will serve as your official legal counsel upon a formal agreement from both parties. Any information sent to the Lento Law Firm before an attorney-client relationship is made is done on a non-confidential basis.