Throughout the custody process, keep in mind the difference between "legal custody" and "physical custody". Legal custody is who makes the "big" decisions for the child such as; where he/she goes to school, what doctors he/she sees, where he/she lives, etc. Most often legal custody will be shared by the parties. This will force the parties to discuss/consult with each other regarding major decisions. If they can reach an agreement, good, if not the court will have to step in. Physical custody is, for lack of better words, who has the Child. This is where primary custody, partial custody, shared custody and visitations are determined. If a party has a child more than 50% of the overnights, that party has primary custody and the other has partial. Shared custody is used when the parties have an equal number of overnight custody of the child.
In each of the three counties, the court will issue an Order directing the parents to attend a Seminar. The seminar is called something along the lines of "Children in the Middle" or "Our Child First." It's typically about four hours long in one evening and it teaches the parents how to best handle their child during the custody process. It also lets the parents know what the child may be thinking during the custody process. While many parents think that this may be a "waste of time" I've never had a parent complain about the seminar once they've gone. It's a good seminar and a good thing for each parent to attend.
Keep in mind that the parents typically go to the seminar on different nights. Also, the seminar is typically an additional expense, typically between $60 and $90.
The Courts will also direct the parents to attend mediation. Most often, the mediator will be an attorney but there are cases where the mediator will be a psychologist, counselor etc that is trained in mediation. In Montgomery and Chester Counties, the parents call the mediator's office to schedule a time for the mediation at the mediator's office. In Berks County, the Courthouse schedules the time and location for the mediation. If a party cannot make the mediation at the scheduled time, he/she must contact the Courthouse immediately so it can be rescheduled. Mediation is also an additional fee for the parties, typically between $80.00 to $100.00. Neither party's attorney is present at the mediation -it is only the parents trying to mediate a custody schedule.
If the parties are unable to reach an agreement, either directly or through mediation, they will have to attend Custody Conciliation. Conciliation is when the parties appear before a Custody Master with their attorneys and ask for a custody schedule. A custody master is an attorney appointed by the courts to hear all custody matters. In Berks and Chester Counties, the Custody Master issues a "Recommended Order." If neither party appeals (called "exceptions") the Recommended Order, it will become a final custody order signed by a judge. If exceptions are filed, then the parties will have to go before a judge to determine custody. In Montgomery County, the Custody Master is not authorized to issue a recommended order but works hard for the parties to reach an Agreed Custody Order. If unable to reach an Agreed Order, the parties will go before a judge to determine custody.
If the parties would like to avoid the three step process, they can reach an agreement for custody at any time. They should have an attorney draft the agreement, have it signed by the parties and then filed with the judge. Depending on where the parties are in the process, they may still have to attend the seminar. Frequently, with today's economy and busy work schedules, I find it more and more frequent to file custody agreements early in the divorce/custody process.
Not legal advice
This guide is not intended to be legal advice or create an attorney/client relationship. Should you have legal questions, I encourage you to seek your own legal counsel. Additionally, each case is different and Court rules are amended from time to time. This Guide is intended to give the reader an idea of the custody process.
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