Filing for custody can be stressful and emotionally overwhelming. Whether you are divorced or were not married to your partner and are no longer living together, Pennsylvania law recognizes how important it is for a child to have a relationship with both their parents. Although every case is different, the following guide answers some of the most commonly asked questions about filing for custody in Pennsylvania.
Keep in mind before you file, there are two types of child custody in Pennsylvania: physical custody and legal custody. Each is decided separately. Several different types of physical custody arrangements may be entered into in Pennsylvania, including the following:
Legal custody refers to who will make major decisions on the child’s behalf. This can include decision-making related to education, healthcare, religious upbringing, and other important issues. Physical custody means where and with whom the children will live. It is important to consider both of these when you are filing for custody in Pennsylvania.
Before filing for a custody order with the court, it’s best to consider whether an option besides litigation might work in your case. Significantly, child custody cases don’t always have to be resolved by a judge. If parents are amicable, they may be able to reach a settlement outside of court — or with the help of a trained mediator. But it’s important to understand that even when custody is agreed upon, it must be ordered by the court for the agreement to be legally enforceable.
The first step to filing for custody is drafting a Complaint for Custody specifying the names of the parties, the types of custody you’re seeking, and why you believe your request is in the children’s best interests. You will need to include various other forms along with the Complaint that set forth confidential identification information, and whether anyone in your household has a history of domestic abuse or criminal conviction. A Certificate of Compliance, Notice to Defend, and Scheduling Order are also required. Once these papers are drafted, they must be filed with the court and served on the opposing party in the case.
In addition, the opposing party may draft an Answer in the case to deny any allegations made in the Complaint. Once the Answer has been filed it must be sent to the other party or their attorney.
After the child custody case has been filed, it will move forward in the court system and a special hearing or conference will be scheduled before a Master. If the parents cannot reach an agreement, the case will be forwarded to a judge for a hearing or trial, though trials are usually only necessary in complex cases.
Each child custody case is unique and presents its own set of challenges when it comes to filing a custody order. This is why it is crucial to find a skilled family law attorney with experience in child custody matters to help you navigate the process.
Custody filings and matters are determined based on “the best interests of the child.” A court must evaluate sixteen factors specified by Pennsylvania statute that address the safety and welfare of a child to render a decision regarding custody. These factors consider things like the need for stability, the relationship the child has with their siblings, and any potential risk of harm to the child. The proximity of each party’s residence to the other, which parent is more likely to attend to the special needs of the child, and the level of conflict between the parents are also crucial considerations.
If the child is mature enough, a court can take their opinion regarding custody into consideration. While there is no minimum age to take the child’s preferences into consideration, this factor will only be relevant if the child’s preferences are “well-reasoned.” For instance, if a child expresses a preference for living with one parent over the other because they can provide a more stable environment, a judge may give deference to the wishes of the child.
A child’s needs and family circumstances can change over the years and as children get older. Sometimes, it is necessary to modify an existing custody arrangement. Parents who agree on the change may modify custody outside of court and have a judge sign off on the new agreement. When parents cannot resolve modification issues between themselves, a court will decide the matter based on what is in the best interests of the child.
If you’re looking to file for custody of your child, it’s critical to ensure you have a knowledgeable family law attorney by your side who can protect your legal rights — and ensure the best interests of your children are met. Located in Exeter, Pennsylvania, The Kulick Law Firm is dedicated to offering compassionate counsel and reliable representation to clients in Northeastern Pennsylvania for a wide variety of family law matters. Call (570) 203-2756 to schedule a consultation to learn how we can help.