In Pennsylvania, a Protection from Abuse order (PFA) helps victims of domestic abuse seek legal protection from their abusers. It's a type of protection order, like a restraining order, that an individual can file against someone else. Depending on the situation, the PFA could also legally protect someone's children from abuse as well.
If you or your children are victims of domestic abuse or worried that you may potentially be in an abusive situation, you should consider filing for a PFA. You likely have many questions concerning how to file, when and where to file, and what happens after you file.
Those who are the subject of a PFA in Pennsylvania—the person who has a PFA filed against them—may have similar questions after getting served with a PFA. Domestic abuse is a complex and nuanced aspect of family law in Pennsylvania, and if you've never dealt with PFAs before, you may not fully understand what's happening when you're served with one.
This FAQ is a guide for anyone in Pennsylvania with questions about PFAs, whether as someone who wants to file a PFA or someone who has had a PFA filed against them.
What is a PFA in Pennsylvania?
A PFA is a special type of court order that protects someone from abuse. The person who files a PFA—the plaintiff—asks the court for protection from someone else. If you are the person who is accused of abuse and has the PFA filed against you, you are the defendant. A county sheriff or police officer will serve you notice about the PFA.
For both the plaintiff and defendant, it's vital to get the details of the PFA straight. These include:
- The date and time of the PFA hearing
- The right to have an attorney and present evidence at the hearing
- The right to bring witnesses to the hearing and how to do so
- Any firearms, weapons, or ammunition restrictions
- Adjustments to your child custody arrangements
If you are the defendant, read your PFA carefully to understand what you may and may not do. Violating it could lead to criminal charges and arrest.
What happens when you get a PFA in Pennsylvania?
When someone files a PFA against you, you will be served the PFA by a sheriff or police officer. It could happen at your home and may require you to vacate your residence immediately if you live with the person who filed the PFA against you. After you receive a PFA, you should read the terms carefully, comply, and then contact an attorney to see what your next steps are.
Who can file a PFA in Pennsylvania?
A PFA isn't available to everyone, and the request for a PFA may be denied if the requirements aren't met. The plaintiff must be in a “qualifying domestic relationship” with the defendant, which means either an intimate relationship or a family connection. Examples include:
- Current or former spouses (including same-sex couples)
- Current or former dating or intimate partners
- Relatives (by blood or marriage) that live together
- Parents and their kids
You must also be at least 18 years old to petition for a PFA. Children under 18 need an adult (it doesn't have to be a parent or guardian) to request the PFA for them.
Where and how do I file PFA?
To request a PFA, you must go to the county courthouse to fill out a petition. The specific office or department you go to depends on your county. On the form, you must indicate the abuse you have suffered and what protections you are seeking specifically. After you're done with the form, a judge reviews it and either grants or denies a temporary PFA. This temporary PFA remains in effect until a hearing, which should be within ten days from the date you filed the petition.
How can I file a PFA on behalf of my child?
The PFA request process is the same for children as it is for adults; you will have to fill out the form for your child.
Do I have to pay a fee to file a PFA?
Filing a PFA order is free for the plaintiff. Sometimes the defendant ends up paying for the PFA process, but other times the county pays.
Do I need a lawyer to file a PFA?
You do not need a lawyer to file a PFA for you; you can do it yourself. Asking an attorney for assistance would be a smart move, however, so you know what to include on your form to ensure you have the protection you need. It's also wise to have an attorney with you when you attend the final PFA hearing, which is held ten days after you file for the PFA.
What does a PFA do?
The purpose of a PFA is to stop abuse. A temporary PFA order can compel a defendant to:
- Restrain from further acts of abuse
- Leave their home if it's shared with the plaintiff
- Avoid entering the plaintiff's home, school, business, or place of work
- Give custody or visitation with their children temporarily
- Pay support to the plaintiff and any minor children if the defendant has a legal obligation to do so
The PFA will also prohibit a defendant from contacting a plaintiff. Talking in person, calling over the phone, texting, interacting via social media, or even having a third party contact the plaintiff on their behalf could all be considered a violation of the PFA by the defendant.
Can I get a PFA against a neighbor or coworker in Pennsylvania?
It's highly unlikely to have a judge approve a PFA against your neighbor unless you have a pre-existing relationship with them through marriage, family ties, or intimacy. You do have recourse if you feel threatened by your neighbor, however. For smaller offenses like noise disturbances, you can file a civil lawsuit. For more serious threats like violence or property damage, you can contact local law enforcement and potentially press criminal charges.
How do I get an emergency PFA in Pennsylvania?
If you need to request a PFA in an emergency and it's not during the courthouse's open hours, you still have an option. In the evenings or on the weekend, simply dial 911. The call center operator will know which magisterial court judge is on-call for emergency PFAs and can give you their phone number. The judge can then grant you a temporary PFA that remains in effect until the courthouse opens again. If you don't go to the courthouse to file a PFA within one business day of the emergency order, the emergency order expires.
Are PFAs enforceable outside of Pennsylvania?
Yes. A PFA is a type of restraining order, and all 50 states have a reciprocal relationship when it comes to protective and restraining orders. The authorities in another state will easily be able to look up any valid PFAs that were issued in Pennsylvania.
What happens if I violate a PFA?
A PFA is a civil matter handled by family court, so you will not be charged with a crime when you are served a PFA or if a final PFA takes effect against you. If you violate the terms of your PFA, however, you can be charged with a criminal offense. The specific crime is indirect criminal contempt, and the penalties could amount to $1,000 in fines and up to six months in jail.
Does a PFA go on a public record?
Yes. Your Pennsylvania PFA will be visible in the Pennsylvania Police Database for law enforcement and in public databases that are accessible to and searchable by the public online. It's possible to have your record sealed if you reach an agreement with the court or if you petition for a record sealing.
You may be successful in your request to have your record sealed if you can prove that you:
- Never violated the PFA
- Have not received any other PFAs
- Have not been convicted of domestic violence or an equal offense
- Let ten years elapse since the expiration of your last PFA
Even if you succeed in getting your record sealed from public view, it will still be visible to law enforcement agencies.
Do I lose custody if I have a PFA against me?
A PFA can override a custody order if one is in place—but only in special circumstances. The person filing the PFA can ask for restrictions on contacting or visiting their children if the court finds that you have abused or threatened to abuse the children or violated a custody order within the last two years. A PFA can also stipulate a custody arrangement if there wasn't already one in place.
If your ex gets a PFA against you and it's granted, it could prevent you from seeing your kids. If your children are not named in the protection order, however, the court cannot revoke your custody rights unless it finds you likely to inflict abuse upon them.
Do I still have to pay child support if I have a PFA against me?
A PFA can require a defendant to pay financial support for the plaintiff and their children. The court may find you have a duty to support the plaintiff and their children and require you to pay:
- Medical support
- Health coverage
- Medical expenses incurred as a result of abuse
- Rent or mortgage payments
Will my kid's school know about my PFA?
If a child is named in a protection order, the county's family court will report it to the child's school. The school is not allowed to provide you with information about your child, and if your PFA prohibits you from contacting your child, the school may not facilitate that contact. You would also be barred from attending educational events and programs held at the school, such as recitals, sports matches, parent-teacher conferences, or graduations.
Can I file for custody if I'm under a PFA order?
Nothing in a PFA order bars you from petitioning for custody, so long as it doesn't conflict with the restrictions listed in the PFA. If your children are named in the PFA order, and you have been denied custodial or visitation rights via a PFA, then a custody order would violate the PFA and, therefore, not be possible.
What is the final PFA hearing in Pennsylvania?
When a plaintiff requests a PFA against someone, that PFA is ex parte or temporary. It remains in effect for ten days, after which time the court sets a date for a final PFA hearing. At the hearing, the plaintiff must prove that abuse occurred using the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, meaning it's more than 50% likely that you committed abuse. You will also have a chance to defend yourself at the hearing. A judge will decide to either drop the temporary PFA or issue a final PFA order (FPO), which lasts three years.
Do I need a lawyer for a PFA hearing?
A lawyer is not required for a PFA hearing, but it is highly recommended. As a plaintiff, you should contact a lawyer as soon as you request a PFA order so they can start working with you on building your case. You will have the burden of proof to show that it is more than 50% likely that the defendant has abused you. With a lawyer by your side, getting through what's sure to be an emotional hearing will be much easier.
As a defendant, you should seriously consider getting a lawyer for your PFA hearing as well. Ideally, you should contact an attorney as soon as possible after being served with your temporary PFA. While you can try to defend yourself at the final hearing, an attorney with experience in Pennsylvania family law courts will be much better equipped to handle your case.
What should I expect at my PFA hearing?
Whether you are the plaintiff or defendant at the PFA hearing, it will most likely be an emotional experience for you. You must remember to keep calm and be respectful toward everyone present. If you are the defendant, note that the no-contact order of your PFA is still in effect as you arrive at the courthouse. Do not attempt to talk to the plaintiff before the hearing starts, and behave as if all of your actions are being observed by courthouse staff from the moment you arrive.
As either a plaintiff or defendant, it's best to arrive with your lawyer and to let them do the talking for you during your hearing.
Can I appeal a PFA?
You can contest a temporary PFA at the final hearing. If you are successful, the judge will dismiss the PFA against you. If the judge orders a final PFA order against you at the hearing, you can file a Motion of Reconsideration within ten days to argue that the judge made a mistake.
After a final PFA order is issued, you also have 30 days to appeal the judge's decision. Appealing a final PFA is no easy task, so it's vital to have an attorney help you put together the proper legal briefs and documents needed for the appeal.
Do I lose my firearms license if I have a PFA?
If you have a temporary PFA against you, one restriction could be handing over your guns, weapons, and ammunition to the authorities. A final PFA order can force you to surrender your firearm licenses as well. If handling firearms is part of your job, such as for members of the military, having a PFA against you could make doing your job much more difficult. You could be demoted, transferred, or discharged depending on the severity of the allegations against you.
Is a PFA for life?
A temporary PFA lasts from the time it's granted by the court until the final PFA hearing. This time is usually ten days. If a judge issues a final PFA order (FPO) at a hearing, it will take effect for a fixed period of time set by the judge, ranging between one month and three years. When the FPO expires, the plaintiff has the option to renew it for another period of time.
Final PFAs remain valid until a judge declares them invalid. At any point during the final PFA's active time period, either party may file a petition to amend the order. A judge may decide that the defendant is no longer a threat to the plaintiff and withdraw the PFA. Only a judge can withdraw a PFA, not a plaintiff or a defendant.
What should I do if my PFA is based on a false accusation?
Sometimes, one person requests a PFA against someone else using false accusations of violence or abuse. The Pennsylvania family court system tends to err on the side of safety and so may grant a PFA in the interest of protecting a potential victim. If the claims are false, you will have a chance to prove them as such at the PFA hearing, which is usually ten days from the date you are served the PFA. By working with an attorney, you have a better chance of defending yourself from a false accusation.
Can I get evicted from a PFA order in Pennsylvania?
A temporary PFA can force you to leave your place of residence if you live with the person who filed the PFA against you. You will have to vacate the residence as soon as possible, so you aren't in violation of the PFA. If the PFA includes a no-contact order, you also may not come back to the residence for any reason during the validity period of the PFA.
Will potential employers see my PFA order?
Yes. If you have a final PFA order against you, it will appear in a background search that most employers are legally allowed to conduct. Having a PFA on your record can be a significant mark against you and could prevent you from being hired if the position involves working at a school or around children.
Keep in mind that it's not only potential employers that run background checks. For safety reasons, some employers run background searches on employees on a regular basis. Your final PFA order could put your current job at risk.
What is the standard of proof in a PFA case?
At a final PFA hearing, the plaintiff has the burden of proof, and the standard is “preponderance of the evidence. That means the plaintiff is responsible for showing that it is more than 50% likely that the defendant committed abuse.
How does a PFA work in public places?
A Pennsylvania PFA is enforced everywhere, including public places, across the country. If you have a PFA order against you and the plaintiff sees you in a public place, they can call the police and report you for violating your PFA. This violation could lead to jail, probation, and fines. If you become aware that the plaintiff will be in the same public place as you, or if a child named in your PFA will be in the same public place as you, you should make every effort to leave that area.
Can a PFA be dropped by the person who filed it?
Only a judge can legally withdraw a PFA order. If you have an FPO against you and the plaintiff tells you they want to drop it, you must refrain from seeking contact with the plaintiff and continue to follow all of the restrictions of your PFA order. If you contact the plaintiff before the judge legally withdraws the PFA, you will be in violation of your PFA and can be held in criminal contempt.
Do PFAs get denied?
Your request for a PFA can be denied if the court does not feel that you are in danger of violence or being abused. When you fill out the form to file a PFA request, you should provide as much detail as possible so the court can fully understand your situation.