Stages of a Child Custody Case in Pennsylvania
Custody cases typically follow predefined path through the court system. A case is initiated when one party files a complaint or petition asking the court to intervene in decisions that would otherwise be left to the parents. The case will then proceed to a custody conference where a Master or Conference Officer will attempt to broker an agreement between the parties. If an agreement is not be reached at a custody conference, the case will be listed for trial.
Custody Conference – Your custody conference will be held before a Master or Conference Officer who will attempt to broker an agreement. The custody conference will be conducted informally and may only be attended by the parties and their attorneys.
The Conference Office does not have to power to make and rulings or decisions at this stage, no evidence or testimony is formally presented. The Master will, however, write a report to the judge who will preside over a trial if an agreement cannot be reached.
As reaching an agreement at a custody conference avoids the costs and stresses of a custody trial, most custody cases will settle at this stage.
Pre-Trial Conference – If an agreement cannot be reached at a custody conference the case will be listed for a Settlement/Pre-Trial Conference with a judge. The Pre-Trial Conference is both an additional opportunity for settlement and an avenue to flush out the logistics of a trial. Depending upon the judge assigned, it may be formal or informal, the child(ren) may be brought to court, you may be required to complete additional paperwork and the judge may take limited testimony.
Trial – If your custody case has not managed to settle via agreement after both a custody conference and pre-trial conference, a trial will be held. A trial is formal proceeding and may last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. If your case proceeds towards a custody trial we will discuss the process, logistics, details, and methods of preparation in great detail as that time approaches.
Pennsylvania Child Custody Factors
When deciding in your child custody case, the court must look at examine 15 specific factors as it reaches it decision. As you prepare for any court dates, you should keep these factors in mind:
Standard Provisions in Custody Orders
While every case is unique, there are a number of relatively standard provisions that will be contained within a custody order:
Legal Custody – Legal custody is the ability to make major decisions on behalf of the child such as decisions regarding healthcare, religion, education, and extra-curricular activities. In almost all cases, legal custody will be shared between the parents so that neither parent can make unilateral decisions.
Physical Custody – Physical custody refers to the periods of time each parent will be with the child. There is no presumption of 50/50, or equal, periods of custody in Pennsylvania. Many judges believe that children are best served by spending the majority of time with one parent rather than split 50/50.
Holiday & Vacation Schedules – Typically each party will be afforded 1-2 weeks of vacation with the child(ren) each year and custody during major holidays will alternate throughout the year and each year so that if the child(ren) spends a specific holiday with one parent this year, they will spend that holiday with the other parent next year.
Transportation – The locations and times of custody exchanges will be addressed in custody orders.
Telephone Contact – In many case the court will order daily phone/video contact with each parent.
Communication & Contact Information – Parents will be ordered to keep lines of communication open and to update the other parent in the event that there are any changes in their contact information.
Non-Disparagement – All custody orders will prohibit either parent from saying or doing anything that may damage the child(ren)’s relationship with the other parent.
Relocation – All custody orders prohibit either parent from relocating with the child to any new residence that substantially impacts the other parent’s ability to spend time with the child(ren)
Less Common Provisions in Pennsylvania Custody Orders
There are a number of other, less common, provisions that may be requested by a party or ordered by a court. While this list is far from exhaustive it is provided to inform you of some examples:
Right of First Refusal/Preferred Babysitter Rule – Right of first refusal in child custody cases means that one parent must first offer the other parent the opportunity to look after their children before contacting a babysitter or another family member to care for the kids.
Urine Screenings – If there are allegations of drug or alcohol abuse, the court may order one or both parents to submit for random urine screenings for a period of time. The costs associated with these tests will be borne by the parents and range from $15-$30 per test.
Supervised Visitation – If there are allegations that a parent’s behavior may put the child at risk, the court may order that any time that child spends with the child(ren) be monitored by another adult. This supervision could be by another family member or a professional provider and usually anticipated to be temporary.
Other Types of Child Custody Proceedings in Pennsylvania
While the vast majority of custody cases will be settled prior to trial and even fewer will see any of the more unique hearings listed below, there are types of custody proceedings you should be aware of:
Special Relief / Emergency Custody – In certain circumstances the court will entertain expedited evidentiary hearings rather than requiring the case to move through the multiple month-long process of making it to a full trial. These situations are far and few between and must be based upon an imminent risk of harm to the child(ren).
Contempt – A contempt petition can be filed if there are allegations that a parent is not following a custody order. Contempt proceedings typically follow the same route as modification proceedings. The case will first be listed for a custody conference and, if not settled at the conference, it will eventually be heard by a judge. If the Judge finds that a parent has not been following the custody order he or she has the ability to punish that parent in order to encourage their compliance.
Relocation – As all custody order prohibit a parent from moving away from the local area with the child(ren), if a parent truly desires to move, and the other parent doesn’t agree, the parent who wishes to move must seek permission from the court to do so.