Child custody disputes might appear complicated, but they don't have to be. When you understand your rights and strive to do what is best for your children, a reasonable resolution can often be attained.
The court will focus on what is in the child's best interests. As a parent or other caregiver, it's your job to help achieve this.
Types of Child Custody in Pennsylvania
There are two types of child custody recognized in Pennsylvania: legal custody and physical custody. However, there are categories under those types that you should also understand.
When a parent has legal custody, they have the right to make decisions about the major life activities of a child. That includes issues involving medical, educational, and religious choices.
A parent may be awarded sole legal custody, where they are the only person with the right to make these decisions. Shared legal custody, which is most common, may also be awarded for parents to make decisions together.
Physical custody involves the parent with whom the child lives and spends time with. There are multiple types of physical custody that may be granted by the court, including:
- Primary physical custody
- Partial physical custody
- Shared physical custody
- Sole physical custody
- Supervised physical custody
One or both parents may share physical custody. It is common for a child to live with one parent most of the time and to live with the other parent only some of the time.
How Is Custody Determined?
Child custody may be decided by a judge or through an agreement between the parents, which the judge must also approve. If parents cannot agree, the court will intervene, and a judge will decide.
A judge will consider many factors when determining the proper custody arrangement for a child. Ultimately, the Judge must decide on an outcome that is in the child's best interests.
What are the Child's Best Interests?
Child custody that is in the best interests of the child fosters and encourages a child's development. The focus is to ensure a child is happy and healthy into adulthood. Children deserve to feel secure and have their needs met.
Achieving the best interests of a child means providing an optimal environment for their mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
Factors That Determine Child Custody
Pennsylvania's child custody laws (Title 23 Pa.C.S.A. §5328(a)) name specific factors that the court will determine when establishing child custody. There are 16 factors that Pennsylvania judges consider, including:
- Which parent is more likely to encourage and permit interaction with the other parent
- Present and past abuse by a parent or member of a parent's household
- Parental duties performed by both parents on behalf of the child
- The need for stability and continuity in education, family life, and community life
- Availability of extended family
- Sibling relationships
- Preference of the child, based on the child's maturity and judgment
- Any attempts of a parent to turn the child against the other parent
- Likelihood of maintaining a loving, stable, consistent, and nurturing relationship with the child
- Ability to provide for the daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational, and special needs of the child
- Proximity of residences of the parties
- Availability of childcare for the child
- Level of conflict between the parents and the willingness and ability of a parent to cooperate with one another
- History of drug or alcohol abuse by a parent or anyone in the parent's household
- Mental and physical condition of a parent or anyone in the parent's household
- Any other relevant factors
The court makes a gender-neutral decision, meaning that neither the father nor the mother is given preference when making child custody decisions.
Process for Deciding Child Custody
When trying to establish or modify child custody, you can do so in two ways: by parental agreement or court order.
A Mutual Agreement
If you and the other parent agree on child custody arrangements, you can have a family law attorney draft appropriate legal documents and file them with the court. However, if you cannot agree with the other parent, you must involve the court.
You will have to open a new child custody case or file a Petition to Modify Child Custody in an existing case. This involves preparing the appropriate legal documents and including specific information for the court. The court will schedule court conferences to see if agreements can be reached and ultimately a hearing where you will present your arguments to a Judge about why your wishes for child custody are in the child's best interests.
The judge will likely take some time to review the information presented at the hearing, and then they will issue a court order. The order will either maintain the status quo or modify your existing child custody arrangement.
Contact a Child Custody Lawyer for Help with Your Case
Child custody cases can be complex. You shouldn't approach them alone. Instead, work with a knowledgeable child custody attorney who can help you do what is best for your family.
Call Attorney Susan Gibson with Gibson Family Law, PLLC, to get started on your unique child custody case. She's exclusively practiced family law in Bucks County for nearly 15 years. Her experience can guide you to an equitable outcome.