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What Should Parents Know About Legal and Physical Custody in Pennsylvania?

mom and dad arguing in near a young girlA divorce proceeding is always complicated if there are children involved. In Pennsylvania, the laws surrounding legal and physical custody after a divorce are complex. If you or someone you love has children and is going through a divorce, finding an experienced Montgomery County, PA, divorce lawyer is highly recommended and can save you a lifetime of problems. The Law Offices of Sheryl R. Rentz, P.C., has years of experience in handling child custody cases.

You should always have your lawyer draw up a comprehensive settlement plan before filing your divorce papers, which can include what legal and physical custody will look like for both parents after all matters are finalized by the court. Our office can handle most every issue related to custody, whether you are married, unmarried, or have already been divorced. We will take care of all communication with the other party, draw up your demands, and make a professional and considered case before the court on your behalf.

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What Are the Different Kinds of Child Custody in Pennsylvania?

The two main types of child custody are legal custody and physical custody. You can file a motion for primary custody or shared custody (in both the legal and physical categories), and those options have their specific laws as well.

Legal Custody. In Pennsylvania, joint or shared legal custody is encouraged whenever possible. With legal custody, you have the right to make all of the important decisions in your children’s life. This includes what schools they attend, religious matters, where they obtain healthcare, where they live, and how they are brought up. This can be awarded to both parents under normal circumstances, and they both must work together when it comes to making decisions that will affect the child’s upbringing. If both parents do not get along or are at odds, these legal decisions can become difficult to coordinate and compromise on moving forward. A family law attorney can advise you should any difficulties on this end arise.

A judge will grant sole legal custody to one parent only if it can be shown that being with the other parent may not be in the best interests of the child. Sole legal custody is when one parent is given complete rights over all that pertains to legal decisions involving the child. Circumstances when sole legal custody may be awarded can include whether the other parent:

  • Lives a great distance away
  • Is abusive or neglectful
  • Has a history of alcohol and substance addiction
  • Isn’t significantly involved in the child’s life

Physical Custody. Physical custody refers to the children’s living arrangements. There are three types:

Shared Custody. Shared physical custody means the kids have two permanent homes where they split their time. Although this is a “fair” situation, it only works effectively if the parents are able to get along and if they live close enough to where house-switching doesn’t affect the children’s schooling or activities.

Primary Custody. When the parents share custody, but one of them is the “primary” or “custodial” parent. This parent will have the child more than 50% of the time and may be responsible for more physical care of the child.

Sole Custody. If a parent is granted sole physical custody, then that parent provides the children’s permanent home. The non-custodial parent usually has visitation. In these situations, the kids will often live with the custodial parent and see the other parent every other weekend and one weeknight. The non-custodial parent may still share legal custody.

If the children are moved out of state by court order or agreement, then several other state laws regarding custody are taken into consideration. No matter the situation, you should always be represented by a child custody lawyer with plenty of experience in trying similar cases.

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Shared Physical Custody

Many parents care for their children by establishing a shared physical custody arrangement. This approach can be beneficial for both the children and parents, whether splitting the week, alternate weeks, or other time-sharing arrangement, living in two separate homes.

In these arrangements, both parents have the right to make decisions on all matters associated with raising their child, including education, religion, medical care, and other matters. The time the children spend with each parent can vary slightly but is generally 50/50. To make these plans work well, the parents typically live within a reasonable distance of each other, and to where the children go to school, although other shared physical custody arrangements can be established for parents living a greater distance apart.

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Shared Physical Custody of Children on the Rise in Pennsylvania

Shared physical custody of children is becoming ever more common in Pennsylvania. Parents want to create a situation that is of greatest benefit to the children. In recent decades, shared physical custody arrangements have tripled, now at about 14% of court approved child custody orders. In the 1970s shared physical custody was rare, with only 3% of divorced parents with this arrangement. Our culture has significantly changed regarding parenting. The changes include fathers being granted primary physical custody, and the increase in shared physical custody for children.

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Working out a Shared Physical Custody Schedule

Your shared physical custody schedule will reflect several issues, including the work schedules of each parent, and what schedule is most practical and beneficial. Some of the options include:

  • Every other week
  • Splitting every week on an alternating schedule
  • Every other weekend, plus weekday time splits

A shared physical custody plan, with the help of a family law attorney, can be created to match the individual needs of the children, work schedules of the parents and other considerations associated with individual children. At Law Offices of Sheryl R. Rentz, P.C., we can assist parents who choose shared physical custody to work out a schedule that is reasonable for everyone, including when children will share holidays with each parent.

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Calculating Child Support and Shared Physical Custody

Shared physical custody can lead to confusion in the amount of child support one parent must pay the other. State law does not outline how child support should be paid in these situations. One way to determine child support is called the “offset formula” method. Several factors are evaluated, including the support obligations of each parent, the difference in income, and a payment from the higher paid parent to the lower income parent, which may be reduced based on spousal support payments.

Every calculation is unique, and there is no set formula. It is imperative that you are represented by a skilled family law attorney to help you resolve these matters, and ensure the child support payments, if any, are fair, based on the situation.

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Factors the Judge Will Consider to Determine Custody and Visitation Arrangements

The judge will consider many issues when deciding where your children should live and who should make decisions regarding their upbringing, including the following:

  • Whether you were legally wed or can establish paternity
  • Willingness of parents to cooperate with one another and with the court
  • Physical and emotional needs of the children
  • Each parent’s financial situation
  • Expressed desires of the children (depending on age)
  • History of child abuse by one or both parents
  • Whether one parent lives in a different state than the other
  • Prior custodial arrangements made for siblings
  • Parents’ expressed custodial preferences

Decisions regarding visitation can take varying forms, as well. Judges consider similar factors when making these arrangements, such as:

  • Willingness and ability to obey terms of visitation agreement
  • Parental fitness
  • Needs of the children
  • Arrangements made for siblings
  • Geographic proximity of parents to one another

In the end, the court will make all decisions based on the "best interests" of your children.

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Why Is a Custody Order Important?

Obtaining a custody order by a court in Pennsylvania can save you a lifetime of insecurity regarding the upbringing of your children. The only way you can do this is by filing a successful legal pleading in the family court in your home state. In the majority of custody cases, the parent involved is granted physical custody or partial physical custody of the children. In some rare cases, the parents will be denied custody by the state if they are deemed to be unfit.

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FAQs About Custody in Pennsylvania

Who Can Seek Custody of a Child?

Does My Sexual Orientation Factor into Custody?

Do Courts Favor Mothers Over Fathers in Regards to Custody?

What Happens if One Parent Does Not Abide by the Court's Ruling?


Q: Who Can Seek Custody of a Child in Pennsylvania?

A: There are three different individuals that can petition for custody of a child, depending on the circumstances:

  • Parents of the child - The most obvious choice and foremost in the court’s mind.
  • Grandparents - In the state of Pennsylvania, grandparents have the right to seek custody provided certain criteria are met to the court’s satisfaction.
  • Someone in the position of a parent - Any individual who has assumed the role of a parent for a certain period of time and who the court finds suitable in regards to the particular situation. This is known in legal terminology as in loco parentis.

Q: Does My Sexual Orientation Factor into Custody?

A: No. Under Pennsylvania state law, the court or any other entity cannot use a parent’s sexual orientation as a factor when determining child custody.

Q: Do Courts Favor Mothers Over Fathers in Regards to Custody?

A: Not any longer. In years past, conventional wisdom dictated that a mother would best serve the needs of a child. Over time, this notion has shifted drastically and today courts no longer give mothers preferential treatment. Instead, judges focus on what situation would serve the child best.

Q: What Happens if One Parent Does Not Abide by the Court's Ruling?

A: One parent may decide to leave the other parent out when it comes to important matters, or when they take it upon themselves to make decisions without any feedback or input from the other parent. The parent who is doing the excluding could be taken back to court, where the excluded parent may file for a motion with the judge to require the parent to abide by the initial ruling, or that other parent could even be found in contempt of court.

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Relocations and Modifications to Custody Orders

There are many reasons you might decide you wish to relocate out of the area one day, but if you have a child custody matter, you may be required to get permission from the other parent and/or the court before you can do that. Under Pennsylvania law, if your planned relocation involves taking the children with you somewhere the other parent would not be able to reasonably continue with the ordered custody arrangements, you must provide a Notice of Proposed Relocation at least 60 days prior to the prospective move date. The other parent has 30 days to respond with an objection to the move, and if they should oppose it, the court will schedule a hearing to listen to your motivations for relocating.

A petition can be filed to make other types of modifications to a custody order, which is typically only granted if you can show there has been a substantial change in circumstances. As always, any requested modifications must be in regards to the best interests of the children.

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Contempt of Custody Orders

If a parent is found to be disobeying the court’s custody order, they will have to face the consequences enforced by a judge. Acts of contempt can include completely preventing visitation, denying visitation for non-payment of child support, and interfering with communication between the children and the other parent. To have the court order imposed, the parent not in violation will need to file a motion and attend a hearing to show the judge (with evidence) how the other parent has been non-compliant.

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Guardianship and Grandparents’ Rights

In situations where neither parent is deemed fit to care for their children or is unable to for any reason, the court will consider guardianship or grandparents’ custodial rights. For considerations of guardianship, a parent may suggest a guardian to the court, which is likely to impact their final decision. If grandparents are willing and able to care for the children, they can petition for legal and physical custody provided they have a close relationship with their grandchildren and the children have lived with them for at least 12 months.

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Helping Keep Families Together

Regardless of your situation, the Law Offices of Sheryl R. Rentz, P.C., can help. Contact our office for a free and confidential consultation. Only by learning what your specific rights are and what laws surround legal and physical child custody in Pennsylvania can you begin to move forward with your legal claim in family court. Contact us at (866) 290-9292 today.

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Law Office of Sheryl R. Rentz

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Ardmore, Pennsylvania 19003

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