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Your Pittsburgh Child Custody Case: The Basics

You can already tell that life as a single parent is going to be hard. Your divorce has been no walk through PNC Park, and you expect the upcoming custody battle to be the same. Read on to find out some key general information about the child custody process in Allegheny County.

Types of Custody

There are two types of custody: physical custody and legal custody. "Physical custody" generally refers to where a child lives and which parent or parents handle the typical day-to-day decisions involved in the child's life. There are several types of physical custody arrangements:

  • Shared Physical Custody -- The child splits time with both parents. The arrangement may call for time to be split on a 50/50 (or even a 60/40) basis.
  • Primary & Partial Physical Custody -- The child spends the majority of his or her time with one parent, who has "primary physical custody" of the child. The child spends a lesser amount of time with the other parent, who is said to have "partial physical custody."
  • Sole Physical Custody -- The child lives with one parent, called the "custodial parent." The "noncustodial" parent may be awarded visitation rights, where he or she may visit the child, but may not remove the child from the custodial parent's control without permission.

On the other hand, "legal custody" refers to a parent's legal right to make major decisions with regard to a child's overall care and upbringing. These decisions typically involve issues such as health and medical care, education, and religious activities. There are two types of legal custody arrangements:

  • Shared Legal Custody -- Both parents share major decision-making responsibilities. One parent should consult with the other parent before making any major decisions.
  • Sole Legal Custody -- One parent is responsible for making major decisions regarding the child's care. He or she does not need to consult with the other parent before making such decisions.

Keep in mind that legal and physical custody are not always divided in the same manner. For example, one parent may have sole physical custody, while both parents share legal custody. In such an arrangement, this generally means the child would live with one parent, but both parents would be involved in making major decisions in the child's life.

The "Generations Program"

Many parents in Pittsburgh believe that once a child custody petition is filed, the next step is to go straight to court. However, Allegheny County has a very specific multi-step process that must be followed before parties can actually litigate a case in court. Once filed, all custody cases (except those involving domestic violence) must initially go through the two-step "Generations Program."

The first step of the program involves an educational seminar for the adult parties involved in the dispute (usually the two parents). The seminar aims to help build conflict resolution skills and enable the parties to reach agreements on their own. The seminar lasts approximately three hours and addresses, among other things, how to build a stable co-parenting relationship and how to help a child adjust to changing family dynamics. If the children involved in a custody dispute are between the ages of six and fifteen years old, they are required to attend a separate interactive group session while the adults are in the seminar. The children are broken up according to age groups and share their experiences with other children through discussion, activities, and games.

The second step of the program is a two to two-and-a-half hour mediation session. In the Generations Program, mediators try to help parents work together to create a custody parenting plan. Attorneys and children are not allowed to attend the mediation. If the parties are able to agree on a custody plan, the mediator will put it on paper by drafting a "Memorandum of Understanding." The parties may then present the document to the court. If the court determines it is in the best interests of the child, the memorandum may be adopted as a court order.


If the parties do not reach an agreement in mediation, the court may schedule a conciliation before a custody conciliator. Conciliation differs from mediation in that the neutral third party (the conciliator) may take a more active approach in the process by making various proposals and trying to find the best solution -- even if that means not staying 100% neutral. In addition, attorneys are allowed to attend and present evidence at the conciliation. If the parties can come to an agreement at the conciliation, the custody conciliator drafts a Consent Order for the judge and the parties to sign.

Judicial Conciliation

If the parties do not reach an agreement at the custody conciliation, the court may order psychological evaluations and/or a home study. The court may also order another conciliation before the judge. If no agreement can be reached at the conference, the judge may then schedule a custody trial.

Custody Trial

When a custody dispute goes to trial, it is important to keep in mind that the judge will always make a custody determination based on the "best interests of the child." In addition, the judge also takes into account several other factors, including:

  • The wishes of the child (if he or she is determined to be of an appropriate age and maturity);
  • Maintaining stability in the child's education, family life, and community life;
  • The child's relationship with his or her siblings;
  • Each parent's involvement in the child's life;
  • Each parent's physical and mental condition; and
  • Whether one parent is more or less willing to facilitate continuing contact between the child and the other parent.

More Information

If you find Allegheny County's multi-step custody process a bit confusing or overwhelming, you can learn more about it by visiting the Neighborhood Legal Services Association website. Or if you have more general questions relating to the custody process, check out FindLaw's child custody section. Last, but not least, a local child custody attorney may be able to help with any questions or advice you need that are specific to your case.

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