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Pennsylvania Child Custody Laws

If you live in Pennsylvania and are in a child custody dispute, it's important to know the ins and outs of the state laws relevant to child custody. Negotiating a settlement in a custody case can be one of the most contentious and emotionally trying parts of family law.

Continue reading for a brief overview of the child custody laws in Pennsylvania.

Types of Custody in Pennsylvania

Under Pennsylvania law, custody arrangements encompass various forms of legal and physical custody of the child.

Legal custody involves the right to make major decisions about the child's welfare. This includes education, healthcare, and religious upbringing. Parents can have sole legal custody, where only one parent has this decision-making authority. Alternatively, they can have shared legal custody (joint custody), where both parents share this responsibility.

Physical custody pertains to where the child lives and their daily care. Parents may also have shared physical custody. This often happens in cases where they live in close proximity and can equally share time. A parent may have primary physical custody, meaning the child resides primarily with them, while the other parent may have partial custody, allowing for scheduled visitation. In some cases, a parent may have sole physical custody. They would have the child live exclusively with them, while the other parent has supervised visitation rights.

These custody arrangements are designed to serve the child’s best interests, ensuring their safety, stability, and well-being.

In 2024, Pennsylvania amended its child custody laws to require courts to look more closely at claims of violence or abuse when making custody or visitation decisions. Domestic violence or a significant criminal record can alert judicial officers to special needs related to the child's safety.

Senate Bill 55, or Kayden's Law, will take effect in August 2024. It was named after Kayden Mancuso, a seven-year-old child who was murdered by her father during court-ordered visitation.

Custody Procedure

A parent may file a custody action as part of a divorce case or a paternity case. In certain circumstances, a non-parent may file a custody case.

Custody cases may be filed in the Domestic Relations Division of the Common Pleas Court in the county where the child has resided for the six months prior to the complaint.

The party who files a complaint for custody of a child is normally referred to as the plaintiff. The plaintiff must serve the other party, the defendant, with the complaint. The court will then set the matter for a pre-trial custody conference and/or mediation. The goal of a pre-trial conference or mediation will be to reach a custody agreement that includes a parenting plan for the case.

When parties agree on the terms of legal and physical custody, including the visitation schedule, they will request that the court adopt their agreement as a custody order.

If the parties can’t reach agreement, the case will go to a contested hearing before the judge. The judge will assess the needs of the child and weigh factors associated with the child's best interest. They will then issue a custody order based on their findings.

Pennsylvania Child Custody Laws at a Glance

The table below helpfully explains the key laws addressing custody in Pennsylvania. It includes factors courts use in determining child custody in Pennsylvania.

Relevant Pennsylvania Custody Laws

Pennsylvania Statutes

Title 23 - Domestic Relations, Part VI - Children and Minors, Chapter 53 - Child Custody (Sections 5301-5366)

Standard of Review in Ordering Custody

In ordering custody, courts will determine the best interests of the child by considering all "relevant factors." Factors affecting the child's safety will be given weighted consideration. In deciding, courts are gender neutral. There is no preference based on gender permitted.

Relevant Factors

"Relevant factors" include the following:

  • Which party is more likely to encourage and permit contact between the child and the other party

  • Present or past abuse by a party or someone in their household and which party can better provide physical safeguards and supervision of the child

  • Parenting duties performed by each party on behalf of the child

  • The need for stability and continuity in the child's education, family life, and community life

  • Sibling and extended family relationships

  • The child's preference, based on their maturity and judgment

  • Attempts by one party to turn the child against the other party, with special attention to safety measures in domestic violence cases

  • Which party is more likely to maintain a loving, stable, consistent, and nurturing relationship with the child

  • Which party is more likely to attend to the daily, developmental, physical, educational, emotional, and special needs of the child

  • Any history of drug or alcohol abuse of a party or their household member

  • The current mental and physical conditions of a party and those in their household

  • Each party's ability to care for the child and make appropriate child care arrangements

  • The proximity of the parties' residences

  • The level of conflict between the parties and the willingness of each to cooperate with the other

  • Any other relevant factor

Related Statutes

Pennsylvania Statutes

Title 23 - Domestic Relations, Part VII Abuse of Family

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and various other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the status of any state law(s) you are reviewing.

Parental Visitation Rights

Pennsylvania recognizes parental contact and support as important for a child's development. Courts will try to grant at least some visitation rights to non-custodial parents in most situations.

The statutes on domestic relations in Pennsylvania have incorporated the term "visitation" under the umbrella of child custody. So, visitation is now construed to mean:

  • Partial physical custody: A visitation schedule that is less than the majority of the parenting time available
  • Shared physical custody: A visitation schedule that is approximately one-half of the parenting time available
  • Supervised physical custody: A visitation schedule that is limited and supervised, at least on a temporary basis

Courts may set requirements for parents to satisfy to enjoy these custodial rights. For example, this could be drug or alcohol tests before visits for parents with a history of drug or alcohol abuse. But courts won’t prohibit visitation by non-custodial parents unless there’s a serious safety issue, such as child abuse or a history of violence.

Provisions for grandparents and great-grandparents to visit a child are also set forth by the statutes. (See 23 Pa. C.S. Section 5328c.)

Pennsylvania Child Custody Laws: Related Resources

When considering the need for a custody action, you may also want to consider reviewing the following resources:

Get Legal Help With Child Custody Issues in Pennsylvania

Child custody matters are never easy, either emotionally or legally. It's important that you protect your rights to maintain a close, healthy relationship with your child in order to give them the best future possible.

If you think you may face or are already facing child custody issues, getting legal advice from a skilled Pennsylvania family law attorney is a good idea. An experienced lawyer will be well-versed in the state's laws and can explain how they apply to your situation.

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