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Pennsylvania Family Law: How Is Child Custody Determined?

Though it may sound intimidating, approaching the trifurcated family law court in Pennsylvania is easier in reality. The trifurcated system just means that custody actions can be brought separately or included with divorce or monetary support actions. In Pennsylvania, the court system is designed to help the parties reach a mutual custody agreement.

In fact, parents can present a parenting and custody agreement that the court will accept and adopt. However, in the event that the parties cannot agree or the court is unsatisfied with the presented agreement, a judge is required to hear the case and make a custody decision.

When both parents are competent, joint custody is presumed, however, Pennsylvania has specific family laws to determine child custody. To make their decision, Pennsylvania judges ask what is in the child’s best interest.

Factors that Influence Child Custody

To determine child custody, courts consider various factors including:

  • Additional familial relationships such as siblings and other extended family relationships

  • Domestic locations, i.e. proximity to one another

  • Mental and physical stability of the parents; i.e. more likely to attend the child's needs, maintain a loving and nurturing relationship

  • The relationship between the parents, i.e. whether one parent intends to turn the child against the other parent

  • Parenting duties performed by each parent for the child

  • History of drug or alcohol abuse

  • Any current or past abuse or risk of harm in the household

  • Any other relevant factor

Finally, depending on the child’s age and maturity level, a judge may occasionally speak with the child to find out the child’s wishes. Judges usually do not require the child to formally testify in a court proceeding, opting for a casual conversation to find out what the child wishes.

Specifically excluded from the list of factors is the consideration of the parents’ gender. In fact, Pennsylvania's family laws concerning child custody are gender-neutral in an effort to eliminate potential bias toward either gender and help ensure each parent has an equal custody claim to their child.

Custody Procedure

After using these factors to evaluate the situation, the court issues a custody order. The order not only provides the allocation of custody but also any visitation rights for other parties, such as grandparents. When issuing the custody order, the court is required to explain the reasons either in writing or spoken out loud in court.

After Custody

Either party can request modifications to the custody arrangement. Usually a modification to the custody arrangement requires a change in the requesting party’s circumstances, otherwise, the court will probably hesitate to change their previous decision. However, any modification will continue to honor the standard of the best interest of the child.

Finally, grandparents can also become involved in the custody arrangement. In Pennsylvania, the Grandparents Visitation Act gives grandparents the right to petition the court for custody. Depending on the child’s parents, if it is in the child’s best interest to reside with their grandparent, the court can even award physical and legal custody to any of the grandparents.

Call to schedule a consultation with Kim A. Bodnar, Attorney at Law in our Pittsburgh office.

NOTE: This is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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