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Your Philadelphia Child Custody Case: The Basics

You ran into each other, literally, in Fairmount Park in the spring. You had dinner and drinks all summer in Rittenhouse Square. The next fall, you two found a nice place in Northern Liberties and had a couple wonderful children. But a few years later, winter came to Philadelphia and froze both of your hearts. Now you need to figure out who will make the big decisions for your children and how, but where do you start? Right here. This article has some general information about Philadelphia child custody law.

What is Custody and How Does It Work?

There are two different types of Child Custody in Philadelphia County. Physical custody refers to the amount of time you and your ex will spend with your child. Legal custody refers to how you and your ex will make major decisions about your child. A child custody order is written by a judge and establishes both physical and legal custody.

There are several types of physical custody:

  • Shared – Both you and your ex (or another person) can have physical custody of your child, and each person spends significant periods of time with the child;
  • Primary – You spend the majority (more than half) of the time with your child. Your ex may get partial or supervised custody;
  • Partial – You spend less than a majority of time with the child;
  • Supervised – An agency or adult named by the court monitors your custodial time with your child; and
  • Sole – You have physical custody of your child all of the time.

There are just two types of legal custody:

  • Shared – Both you and your ex (or another person) have the right to make major decisions for your child; or
  • Sole – You or your ex make all the major decisions for your child.

Custody doesn’t necessarily have to be a battle. If you and your ex can agree on an arrangement, you can file an agreement with the court in the form of a Custody Order, which lays out each parent’s rights and responsibilities. A custody order is also appropriate if you can’t come to an agreement on custody.

How Do I Apply For a Custody Order?

Someone interested in filing for custody can get general information from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Citizens Guide to Child Custody. They would then file a Philadelphia County Complaint for Custody with the Clerk of Court of Family Court at 1133 Chestnut Street. A person wanting help preparing a custody complaint can go to the Intake Unit of Philadelphia Family Court and staff can help prepare a complaint. The Intake Unit is located in Room M-6 at 34 S. 11th Street, Philadelphia, PA. Custody forms and instructions can also be found on the Philadelphia Bar Association’s website. Please note that this information is not provided as legal advice. For information specific to your case, you may wish to contact a local attorney specializing in child custody cases.

How Does the Court Determine Custody?

A custody hearing generally occurs in front of a judge or master who will decide the custody arrangement based on what is in the best interests of your child. Philadelphia child custody courts must consider all relevant factors and give more consideration to factors that affect the safety of your child. Some of those factors focus on the parents, like which parent is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between the child and the other parent; which parent is more likely to maintain a loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship with the child; and which parent is more likely to attend to the daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational and special needs of the child.

Other factors focus on the child, like the child’s preference, relationships with any siblings; and the need for stability and continuity in your child's education, community, and family life. The court may also consider any past or present physical abuse of the child, whether either parent has a history of drug or alcohol abuse, as well as certain criminal charges and convictions.

The Court Issued a Child Custody Order -- Now What?

Once the court enters a final child custody order, you must abide by the order or you could be held in contempt of court. If your ex violates the custody order, you can ask a court for help in addressing the problem. The court could issue sanctions, such as a fine or imprisonment, or it could change the custody order.

If you want to modify a child custody order, you can file a Petition to Modify Custody at any time after the court issues the initial order. You also have the right to appeal a judge’s decision after a hearing.

Next Steps

Custody decisions are complicated situations for everyone, both legally and emotionally. If you’d like help with filing petitions or appeals, you can try to meet with an experienced family attorney or look for free legal aid in Philadelphia. You can also find more general information in FindLaw’s child custody section.

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