The Basics Of Child Custody Laws In Pennsylvania


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In matters related to child custody, Pennsylvania family law requires the Court to rule in the best interests of the child or children involved.  Parents, too, desire to serve their children’s best interests; however, they often disagree on the methods to be used.  Who should be the primary physical custodian?  Who should make decisions regarding a child’s health, education, and religious practices?  It is most important to remember that resolving custody issues need not be a “battle”.  Amicable resolutions can be reached that satisfy both parents’ desire that their child’s best interests are met.

Although you certainly may prepare and file a custody complaint on your own, it is not an easy task.  Navigating the labyrinth of legal mazes and fully understanding the terminology is difficult. When it comes to your children and their wellbeing, relying on your limited legal knowledge and ability is not a good idea.

That being said, here are some basic things about the Pennsylvania custody laws that you should be aware of:

What is the difference between “legal custody” and  “physical custody”?

  • Legal custody is the right to make the major decisions that affect your child. Typically this includes educational, religious, and medical decisions. It can either be sole or shared, but under normal circumstances such decision-making responsibility is granted equally to the parents.
  • Physical custody is the actual, physical possession and control of a child; where they live. This physical custody can be “sole”, meaning the child lives with one parent on a permanent basis, or “shared”, meaning the child lives with each parent for a significant period of time (sometimes, split evenly) on a regular basis.  One parent could also be awarded “primary” custody, meaning the child lives with that parent the majority of the time and the other parent has  “partial” custody or what is often referred to as “visitation”.

Why obtain a custody order, my children live with me?

  • Some people choose not to obtain a custody order simply because they don’t want the family court involved with the matter.  Others think they simply don’t need one because they have “control” of their children and there is nothing the other party can do about it. This could not be further from the truth.  In the absence of a custody order setting out the custodial rights of each parent, both parents have unlimited custodial rights.  This means that either parent could take the children out of state, temporarily or permanently, without the consent of the other parent.  Therefore, it is vitally important to obtain a custody order which sets out the rights and responsibilities of each parent.  Obtaining a court order that sets out the custody practices already in place need not be nasty – or costly – especially if both parents agree.  Obtaining a court order that names you the primary custodian of your children when the other parent is an absent or disinterested parent may also be done easily and at little cost.  Such an order also safeguards your children’s wellbeing should the absent parent ever re-surface and make unreasonable demands.

Do I get child support if I have physical custody?

  • Pennsylvania considers child support and child custody to be separate legal issues.

May I obtain a custody order for my grandchildren?

  • Yes.  Grandparents are often awarded visitation rights to their grandchildren.  However, grandparents may only seek custody of their grandchildren under certain circumstances.

How do I file?

  • Your county determines the actual steps and procedures for filing and each county may differ.

What if a custody order is already in place, can it be changed?

  • Custody orders are always modifiable and either parent may ask the Court to change some or all, of its terms. The best interests of the subject child are always the criteria for any change.

How much weight does a child’s wishes have when it comes to custody?

  • It primarily depends upon the maturity level of the child, but usually the Court will give the greatest weight to wishes of a child over the age of 12 years.

The most important thing you can know about Pennsylvania child custody law is that the Court’s decisions are based on the “best interest of the child”, and the best interest of the child is determined on a case-by-case basis.

The attorneys at Knight & Moskow, P.C. are exclusively devoted to the legal needs of the family, and are very experienced in representing parents, grandparents – and children – with child custody issues.  If you are concerned that your children’s best interests are not being met, or want to secure their interests through a custody order entered by the Court in DelawareCounty, ChesterCounty, PhiladelphiaCounty and MontgomeryCounty, call our office at (610) 565-8210, or contact us via email at to schedule a consultation.

Divorce In Pennsylvania – Knight & Moskow, P.C., a family law firm that will work hard for you.

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Going through a divorce is one of life’s most stressful experiences, bringing with it emotional strain and, hopefully, eventual emotional relief.  The stress experienced in divorce is largely due to the arguments that ensue over child custody, child and spousal support, the distribution of marital assets, and the allocation of marital debt.  If the divorcing couple cannot come to an agreement on some, or all, of these issues, then they are resolved by a third party, usually a judge or master appointed by the Court.  The judge or master will make decisions effecting the divorcing couple and their children after a hearing often lasting less than five hours, which is hardly enough time to know what the family’s needs really are.  However, the master or judge will consider the arguments from both sides and apply the pertinent provisions of Pennsylvania family law to resolve the disputed issues.  The resulting Orders issued often result in a resolution that is unacceptable to both parties.

Whether you are the spouse wanting the divorce, or the spouse being forced to defend the divorce, it is wise to seek your own legal counsel.  In fact, it is unethical for one attorney to represent both divorcing parties, since it is his obligation to vigorously defend his client’s interests and divorcing clients have conflicting interests.  It is, therefore, foolish and short-sighted to allow your spouse’s attorney to prepare a settlement agreement that you then sign without legal counsel of your own.  Limiting the costs of a divorce may seem like a good idea; however, having your own attorney, whose only goal is to safeguard your best interests will be money well spent.

You should also know that according to Pennsylvania family law, if your divorce becomes final before you have asked the court, in writing, for a property settlement or alimony, you will absolutely lose the right to request a property settlement or alimony. A divorce attorney can explain these issues more fully and advise you on what to request and when to do so.

A divorce cannot be filed in Pennsylvania unless at least one of the spouses has maintained residency for at least 6 months,  Further, there are two types of divorces filed in Pennsylvania, “fault” and “no fault”.

A no-fault divorce may proceed through the Court once the parties have lived separate and apart for two years, or if both parties have consented to move the divorce forward prior to the expiration of the two-year period.

“Living separate and apart” does not mean that the parties cannot live in the same household.  However, they must have stopped acting like husband and wife for the full two year period, and must hold themselves out to friends and family as being separated, with no hope or intention of getting back together.  If the parties disagree that they have been separated for the full two year period, a hearing is held and the matter resolved by the Court.

After the parties have consented, or they have been separated for two years, the Court upon either party’s request will assign a Master to oversee the divorce proceedings.  Typically, your attorney, with direction from you, will work with your spouse’s attorney on a written settlement agreement. This agreement can include issues related to child custody and support, alimony, the distribution of marital property, and the allocation of marital debt.  Once all issues are agreed upon, the final agreement will be submitted to the Court and made part of the parties’ final Divorce Decree.

If the parties cannot reach an agreement on some, or all, of the issues, a hearing is held before the Master who then submits recommended resolutions to the Court.  If either party is unhappy with the Master’s recommendations, he or she may ask that a Judge be assigned and a trial on all matters be scheduled. At the conclusion of the trial, the Judge will rule on all issues presented, which ruling is only appealable to the Superior Court, and only under certain conditions.

The less common “fault divorce” requires an initial hearing to determine whether one of the conduct of one of the spouses has, in fact, committed indignities against the other spouse.  If fault is found, then the divorce may proceed without the consent of the party at fault and without waiting the two years otherwise required.  Proceeding with a “fault divorce” is rare because there are really only two advantages:  (1) the innocent spouse may immediately proceed; and (2) even if otherwise entitled, the spouse at fault will not be awarded alimony if adultery is proven.

The attorneys at Knight & Moskow, P.C., are experienced Pennsylvania divorce lawyers, and they work very diligently to resolve all issues so that their clients may avoid unnecessary court hearings.  Clients are best served when settlements are reached rather than risking a court hearing that results in a ruling that fails to satisfy either spouse.  However, if all else fails and a hearing or trial is required, the attorneys at Knight & Moskow, P.C. will vigorously represent you and defend your rights and interests.

To discuss your family law needs in DelawareCounty, ChesterCounty, PhiladelphiaCounty or MontgomeryCounty, call our office at (610) 565-8210, or contact us via email at to schedule a consultation.