Child Custody in Pennsylvania
Parents have inherent rights to custody and visitation of their children. The state’s child custody laws are enforced when parents cannot agree on a workable child custody and visitation arrangement on their own.
When parents get a divorce, or when they break up if they were never married, there will be child custody issues that will have to be addressed. The parents will have to make important decisions as to legal custody, physical custody, joint custody and sole custody of the minor children produced in the relationship or marriage.
The term “custody" refers to who has the child at the time, and there are different versions to this. Sole custody refers to both legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody is the parent’s right to make important decisions for the child such as, where they live, what religion they are raised in, where they go to school, who their medical doctor is and what types of extracurricular activities they will be enrolled in. The parent with physical custody has the child living with them most of the time and they have the right to make important decisions regarding the child’s everyday needs. When a parent has sole custody, they have both legal custody and physical custody of their child and the child has one primary residence.
Split custody is where there are two children and one child lives with each parent. This type of custody arrangement is dependent upon the age of the children and the children’s’ preference.
Joint custody has several meanings; for example, joint legal custody refers to when both parents have the right to make decisions about the child’s upbringing, but the child has one primary residence. With shared legal custody, the child has two primary residences where they spend at least 35% of their time with the other parent. The courts will scrutinize joint custody agreements, if the parents are constantly fighting over certain issues the court might strike down your agreement. It’s extremely important that parents who are pursuing joint custody agreements try to work with one another with the children’s best interests in mind.
The family courts in Pennsylvania have moved away from awarding custody to the mother in a divorce. Today, the courts are gender neutral and will give both parents equal consideration if they cannot come to an arrangement on their own. There are a number of factors that the court will consider before making a determination. They will look at each parent’s willingness to share custody, their financial situation, the child’s relationship with each parent, employment considerations (long hours etc.), age, the number of children and more.
Furthermore, if the parents were never legally married, it will be necessary to establish paternity before awarding a father custody and visitation rights. Before paternity is established, the child is considered the mother’s child; therefore, if a father desires to have rights to his child, or if a mother wishes to receive child support, paternity must be admitted or established in court.
Child custody arrangements are not permanent. Circumstances can change over time, giving parents the need to make a modification to the existing child custody and visitation agreement. At any point in time before the child turns 18 years of age, either parent can petition the family court for a modification.
If you are contemplating divorce, or if you have already been served papers, it is important to seek the services of an experienced attorney. Your attorney can help you to draw up a workable child custody and visitation agreement with your spouse. If you and your spouse cannot agree on a child custody and visitation schedule, then your attorney can fully prepare your case so that your side can be accurately presented in front of a judge. Either way, retaining the services of a qualified attorney will give you the best chances of reaching a favorable outcome in your child custody matter. So please, contact a family lawyer today so you can start protecting your parental rights.