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.