How Do Judges Decide Child Custody in Pennsylvania?

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Child custody can be the single most important important issue when couples divorce or unmarried parents go their separate ways. Both parents often want to be sure they have time with their children and the authority to make important decisions in their lives. When parents can’t compromise on visitation schedules or decision-making roles, it is up to the court to settle the matter. So how do judges decide child custody in Pennsylvania?

The Two Sides of Child Custody

When most people talk about child custody they think of it as who is going to be the primary parent to their children. However, from a legal perspective, there are two different sides of child custody:

Legal Custody

Legal custody determines which parent will have the right, and the responsibility, to make key decisions for your children. This isn’t about bed-times or whether a headache needs painkillers. Instead, it deals with the big-picture issues:

  • Whether a child needs medication for a developmental challenge or mental health issue
  • When the child will be allowed to date or own a cell phone
  • Where the child will go to school
  • Whether the child is allowed to travel out of state
  • What religious training the child will receive

Your Pennsylvania family court judge can award this authority to one parent — sole legal custody — or order both parents to work together to reach these decisions — shared legal custody.

Physical Custody

The other side of the issue is physical custody, which determines which parent the child will live with. Generally speaking, when a child is in one parent’s household, that parent gets to control the child’s day-to-day care and custody issues. This includes making sure homework gets done, arranging for child care if you need to work or be away, preparing food, maintaining the child’s schedule, getting them back and forth to school and extracurricular activities, and responding to any bumps or behavioral issues that happen along the way.

The family court judge can split physical custody a number of ways:

  • Primary physical custody can be awarded to one parent
  • Shared physical custody can divide a child’s time between two households
  • Partial physical custody can give a non-custodial parent unsupervised visitation rights
  • Supervised visitation can be used to protect children from a parent who isn’t capable of taking care of them himself or herself.

How Judges Decide Child Custody Disputes

Most often, when a child custody issue goes to trial it is because both parents want to be the one with sole or primary custody of their children. When that happens, it is up to the court to decide what is in the “best interests of the child.” Even though you and your spouse or co-parent are the ones in the courtroom, the judge will be focused on the effect any proposed custody situation will have on your children and their health, safety, and well-being. To decide this, Pennsylvania law requires the court to consider 16 factors:

  1. Which parent is more likely to encourage their children to have frequent contact with the other parent.
  2. Any history of domestic violence or abuse in either parent’s household, including the risk of harm to the child, and which parent can provide better physical safety and supervision of the child.
  3. The parental duties performed by each parent.
  4. The child’s need for stability and continuity in education, family, and community life.
  5. The availability of extended family.
  6. The child’s relationship to siblings.
  7. The child’s preference (depending on his or her maturity, reasoning, and judgment).
  8. Either parent’s attempts to turn the child against the other parent (except as needed to protect against domestic violence).
  9. Which parent is more likely to provide a loving, stable, consistent, and nurturing relationship with the child to address his or her emotional needs.
  10. Which parent is more likely to provide for the child’s physical, emotional, developmental, educational, and special needs.
  11. How close the parents live to one another.
  12. Each parent’s availability to care for the child or find appropriate child-care.
  13. The willingness and ability of the parents to cooperate and the level of conflict between them (except in an effort to protect the child from abuse).
  14. Drug or alcohol abuse in either parent’s household.
  15. The mental and physical health of each parent and members of their household.
  16. Any other relevant factor.

In applying these factors, the court is not allowed to favor either party because of his or her gender, and must consider the facts of your specific case. Your Pennsylvania family lawyer will help you develop your case to show why awarding you primary physical custody is in your child’s best interests.

Creating a Schedule that Works for Your Family

Even when judges hear evidence on all 16 factors to decide child custody, they can still come up with an arrangement that doesn’t make sense for you and your family. There are so many moving pieces in a family’s custody and visitation schedule that it is often best for parents and their attorneys to create a schedule that works without court involvement. When you settle on a schedule rather than leaving it up to a judge to decide child custody, you can be sure your parenting time meshes well with your work schedule, maximizes the time you have at home to spend with your children, and takes into account the specific needs you and your child may have that the judge may not have thought to consider.

At Berman & Associates, our experienced family law attorneys know how judges decide child custody in Pennsylvania. We will help you establish your case and consider a custody and visitation schedule that makes sense for you and your family. We welcome you to contact us to speak with us about how we can help with your family law matter.

Categories: Child Custody