One of the most difficult parts of separation or divorce in Pennsylvania is determining child custody. Even if the couple gets along, the stress and emotion involved in deciding child custody can turn an amicable divorce into a hostile fight. Having an experienced family lawyer by your side can help advise you of your rights, provide options, and prevent escalation of a contested child custody dispute.
Child Custody in Pennsylvania
Child custody in Pennsylvania can be given to one parent or shared by both parents. Custody includes “legal custody” and “physical custody.” Legal custody involves the right to make major decisions on behalf of the child, including educational, medical, and religious decisions. Physical custody involves the actual physical possession and control of the child.
In most child custody situation in Pennsylvania, both physical and legal custody are shared. However, in some situations, one individual has sole legal and physical custody. Custody may also involve supervised physical custody or visits, where another adult or agency is present to monitor the interaction between the child and the parent.
In the ideal situation, custody will be mutually decided by the parties involved. The court may get involved to help the parties reach an agreement separately, or as part of a divorce. If the parents cannot come to an agreement on child custody, the courts will make that decision and issue a child custody order.
Determining Child Custody
Child custody in Pennsylvania can be decided between the parents or through the courts. If the parents agree on how to divide and share child custody and responsibilities, they may not need to go through the courts to get a court order. Parents can come up with a formal plan or agree to make decisions as they come up.
When parents generally agree about child custody and visitation, it may still be a good idea to come up with a parenting plan. This is a way to formalize the plan and address issues that the parties may not have considered. In developing a custody plan, the parties need to address what to do in the case of a dispute, how much notice to give when plans change, what to do if a parent gets sick, and who else can be around to care for or pick up the child.
When disputes arise, then the courts usually get involved. This may include the court sending the parents to mediation or some other alternative dispute resolution to come to an agreement on child custody. Mediation generally involves a neutral third-party who facilitates an agreement. Unlike a judge, the mediator does not decide what the outcome will be. Instead, the mediator helps the parties come up with their own ways to settle the dispute.
If mediation doesn't work, then the court will decide custody based on “the best interests of the child.” In determining the best interests of the child or children, the court considers a number of factors. Some of these factors include:
- Which party is more likely to encourage and allow frequent and continuing contact between the child and another party;
- Any present or past abuse committed by a party or member of the party's household, whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child or an abused party and which party can better provide adequate physical safeguards and supervision of the child;
- Parental duties performed by each party on behalf of the child;
- The need for stability and continuity in the child's education, family life, and community life;
- Availability of extended family;
- The child's sibling relationships;
- Preference of the child, based on the child's maturity and judgment;
- Any attempts by a parent to turn the child against the other parent, (except in cases of domestic violence);
- Maintaining a loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship for the child's emotional needs;
- Attending to the daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational and special needs of the child;
- Proximity of the residences of the parties;
- Availability to care for the child or ability to make appropriate child-care arrangements;
- Willingness and ability of the parties to cooperate with one another;
- History of drug or alcohol abuse of a party or member of a party's household;
- Mental and physical condition of a party or member of a party's household; and
- Any other relevant factors.
Child Custody Disputes
Child custody is often subject to highly contentious disputes. Parents may disagree on who can provide best for the child, and in some cases, the parents may even use child custody as a negotiation tactic in the divorce. In cases of highly disputed child custody, it is highly recommended you have an attorney to represent you, to fight for your rights and make sure your children are protected.
In a child custody dispute, the court will hear from both parties, including testimony from the parents, grandparents, witnesses, and sometimes the child. Each party will also present evidence in support of their position, including medical records, school records, and other types of physical evidence.
Child Custody Plans
Child custody plans can take just about any form, depending on how well the parties get along, the distance between parents, work schedules, and education plans. Some joint custody schedules include alternating every week or every other week. This may include an alternating midweek or weekend visit. This generally works best when both parents live relatively nearby, and the child maintains an equal presence in both households and both neighborhoods.
When parents live further away (or in different states) shared custody may be based around the school year. One parent may have custody of the child during the school year, with the child visiting the other parent during the summer and on school holidays.
Child Custody Order
A child custody order is a court order issued by a judge that provides the terms of physical and legal custody. The child custody order may provide for shared, partial, primary, supervised, or sole physical custody, and shared or sole legal custody for the parents, and even provide for custody for the grandparents.
The child custody order has legal authority. Violations of the child custody order could have legal repercussions, including charges for contempt of court, fines, probation, or even jail time. If you have any disputes regarding the child custody order, do not take matters into your own hands. Contact your family law attorney or the court.
If you disagree with the child custody order, you may file a request for reconsideration. You may also file an appeal with the Superior Court of Philadelphia. Make sure you talk to your attorney as soon as possible if you want to dispute a child custody order because you may have a limited to file an appeal.
Child Custody Modifications
When circumstances change, either parent may ask the court to modify a child custody order. The most common causes of modification include relocation, death of a parent, difficulty in finding child care, or threats to the child's safety.
The court will generally consider the same factors in deciding whether to modify the child custody order, including the best interest of the child. The court may again consider testimony and evidence in determining if a modification is warranted and how to modify the order.
Child custody orders and plans should also be revisited regularly by the parties as the child gets older. As children get older and take on new hobbies, sports, or educational interests, a modification in the child custody order may be in the best interests of the child.
Moving and Relocation
One of the most common reasons to modify a child custody order involves one parent moving out the area. Especially after a divorce or separation, one parent may decide to move out of the area for a job, new relationship, or to get a fresh start. When one parent is moving far away or out of state, sharing child custody can become much more complicated.
When one parent is relocating to a different state, the court will generally hold a special hearing. Generally, a parent cannot just move without notifying the courts. The relocating parent may have to follow strict guidelines in notifying the court and the other party before the planned move. Talk to your family law attorney if you are considering relocating or moving out of state.
The court will generally consider the same factors in how to allocate child custody and responsibilities. However, the court will also consider the best interests of the child in deciding whether the child should stay with the in-state parent, move with the relocating parent, or how to split time between the two states.
Pennsylvania Child Custody Lawyer
Child custody is one of the most difficult parts of a separation or divorce. Even if the separation is amicable, having an experienced lawyer on your side can help you make the important decisions for your future and your children's future. Family law attorney David J. Cohen is devoted to representing the people of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and surrounding areas. Contact the David J. Cohen Law Firm, LLC today for a consultation.