Modifying Child Custody in Pennsylvania

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Unlike a divorce judgment, a child custody order cannot be set in stone. As time goes by, family circumstances can change, and a child may have different needs as they grow older. If the custody or visitation arrangement in place no longer serves the best interests of the child, you may be able to obtain a modification.

However, it’s important to understand that decisions regarding child custody modifications cannot be made unilaterally. In other words, parents cannot simply take it upon themselves to change the existing custody and visitation order. An agreement regarding the modification must be reached, and a new order must be issued by the court in order for the modification to be legally enforceable.

Reasons to Modify Child Custody

Pennsylvania favors shared custody arrangements whenever possible to ensure a child has regular contact with both parents. But there can be many different circumstances that give rise to a custody modification. While a court will typically hesitate to change a custody arrangement if a child is happy, healthy, and thriving, a modification may be warranted in the following situations:

  • A parent relocates for their job, or a job schedule requires a parenting plan change — In situations where a parent needs to move out of the area for work or the work schedule or commuting schedule changes, it may be necessary to adjust the custody order.
  • The child is in danger — If a parent, his/her partner, or a housemate poses a risk of harm to the child, or you have proof that domestic violence has occurred, a judge will likely grant a modification to prevent harm to the child.
  • Illness or disability of either parent — If the child’s parent can no longer provide the needed care during that parent’s custodial time due to a physical health condition, the custody order may need to be modified.
  • Remarriage of a parent — Although remarriage doesn’t always mean that a custody arrangement should be altered, a modification may be justified if there would be a change in the child’s living situation, routine, or development.
  • New living arrangements — If new living arrangements would impact a parent’s ability to spend quality time with his/her child, that parent may be able to request a modification.
  • A parent is battling a substance abuse issue — If a parent has a substance abuse issue that would put the child’s welfare in danger, or the parent is unfit to care for the child, a custody modification may be necessary.
  • One parent denies the other visitation — In the event a parent violates a custody order, he/she could face contempt charges. In addition, if a parent refuses to cooperate with the existing custody arrangement, a court may approve a modification.

In some cases, a change in the child’s relationship with a parent may also give rise to a request for a custody modification and a new parenting plan. However, in determining whether a modification is appropriate, the court will consider the best interests of the child first and foremost.

How to Obtain a Child Custody Modification

Custody modifications do not always need to be litigated in the courtroom. In the event you are seeking a child custody modification, you have two options. You can come to a mutual agreement with the other parent outside of court — or you can file a petition to have a judge determine the outcome of the matter.

Generally, it’s best to decide child custody issues outside of court whenever possible. This allows you to maintain amiability with your co-parent and remain in control of the outcome. The mediation process can often be helpful to assist parents with deciding day-to-day custody matters and in determining how holidays, birthdays, and vacations will be divided. Once you and your co-parent reach an agreement, you must submit an appropriate document in writing to the court for the judge to sign.

Judicial intervention may be needed if the parties cannot settle their custody matter among themselves, or with the help of a mediator. Once you have filed a petition with the court outlining the reasons you wish to modify the existing custody arrangement, you will receive a date for a hearing. At the court appearance, the judge will evaluate the best interests of the child and weigh a number of factors, including the parental duties performed by each parent and the child’s need for stability. A judge will also assess whether there is a risk of harm to the child, each party’s ability to care for the child, the level of conflict between the parties, and various other factors concerning the child’s wellbeing. In Pennsylvania the judge will be guided by the Commonwealth’s 16 statutory custody factors.

Making an Emergency Motion to Modify Child Custody

If your child’s health, safety, or welfare is at immediate risk, you may make an emergency motion to modify child custody by filing a Petition for Emergency Relief. Should a judge grant the request, it can provide a temporary custody arrangement for your child and include an order of protection if needed. If a judge agrees that the petition alleges an immediate danger to the child a hearing will be scheduled within a few days — or sometimes even just a few hours, depending on the urgency of the situation.

The first hearing scheduled for an emergency petition to modify child custody may be ex parte, with the other parent not in attendance. If the judge determines an emergency order is necessary, the child will go into a temporary custody arrangement and a second hearing will be scheduled. At the subsequent hearing, the judge will hear testimony from both parents and decide whether to let the emergency order stand or overturn it. If the other parent can be quickly served with the Emergency Petition and attend the first hearing, both parents will testify and the judge may create a new Order.

Contact an Experienced Pennsylvania Family Law Attorney

Child custody matters can be legally complex and emotionally overwhelming. It’s crucial to have a knowledgeable family law attorney by your side who can ensure your rights are protected and obtain a favorable outcome in your case. Located in Media, Pennsylvania, Berman & Associates represents clients for child custody modifications and a wide variety of family law matters in Delaware, Chester, and Montgomery Counties, as well as in the City of Philadelphia. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.

Categories: Child Custody, Divorce