Jurisdiction To Determine Pennsylvania Custody Cases
Before any family court judge or master can make a custody determination, the family court must have jurisdiction to enter the custody order. Jurisdiction is another way of saying that the court has the authority to enter an order on a particular case. Pennsylvania has adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction & Enforcement Act, the UCCJEA, that sets forth the rules regarding which court has jurisdiction to enter a custody order. The UCCJEA provides that the court in the county and state where the minor child has lived for the six month period of time preceding a custody action is generally the court that has jurisdiction to determine the appropriate custody order. The UCCJEA also provides that if there has been a prior order regarding custody, the court that originally entered the order will be the court to modify the prior order unless that court decides that another county court would be the more appropriate forum.
Who Has Standing To Pursue A PA Custody Action?
Generally speaking, a Pennsylvania custody action may only be filed by a child’s biological parents. In very, very limited circumstances, third parties are granted the rights to seek partial or primary custody of a minor child. Third parties are generally only permitted to seek partial or primary custody if said rights are specifically set forth under state statutes such as the Grandparent Visitation Statutes or if the third parties are granted standing under common law principles such as when the person has acted like a parent to a child whose parent did not reside in the same household. The latter type of standing is called “in loco parentis” meaning acting like a parent.
How Is Custody Decided In Pennsylvania Courts?
Most of the time, parents are able to come to an agreement on the best type of custody arrangement for them and their minor children. Our Montgomery County and Chester County lawyers can assist parents who have agreed upon a custody schedule to formalize their arrangement into a custody order. Having the agreement made into a custody order allows both parties the right to enforce the agreement if future disputes occur between the parents. Even when the parents are angry at each other, hopefully they can step back from their anger and realize that both parents play an important role in their children’s lives.
However, in some cases, the parents are not able to speak to each other without fighting, let alone come to an agreement regarding custody. If the parents are not able to agree on a custodial arrangement, family court action may be necessary. The formal legal process begins with the filing of a Custody Complaint by a Pennsylvania custody lawyer. Generally, the Complaint is filed in the state and county where the minor child or children have lived for the past six months.
After filing the Pennsylvania Custody Complaint and prior to any scheduled family court dates, some counties require that the parents and children over a certain age attend a seminar that explains the court process, the emotional impact upon the children of the parents’ separation and the legal process. In Montgomery County custody cases, as well as Chester County custody cases, the parents in a custody action must also attend a mediation session with a court-appointed mediator. If the custody problems are not resolved by mediation or if no mediation program exists, usually the initial court hearing involves a conference with a court-appointed custody master or hearing officer. The custody master or hearing officer is not an elected judge; he or she is a court employee who is assigned to try to assist parties in resolving custody disputes and, if they cannot come to an agreement, the hearing officer or master may enter a temporary order.
If an agreement cannot be made at the conference before the custody master or hearing officer, home studies and/or psychological evaluations of the parents and children may be ordered by the family court. The psychologist’s opinion in a child custody case is given a great deal of weight by the family court judges. In fact, approximately eighty percent of the time, the family court judge will enter a custody order that mirrors the recommendation of the court-appointed expert; sometimes with only minor adjustments to the report. For this reason, it is crucial for a parent to consult with an experienced child custody lawyer prior to attending any appointments with the court-appointed psychologist.
Once the psychological evaluations are completed and a report is issued by the court-appointed psychologist, a pre-trial conference is generally scheduled with the assigned family court judge. Most of the time, the conference is in the judge’s chambers with only the child custody lawyers present in chambers and the parties waiting in the hall. If this step does not result in a settlement, a custody trial is then conducted and the family court judge will determine the custodial arrangement that is in the best interests and welfare of the children.
Best Interest Of The Child Standard Under PA Custody Laws
The Pennsylvania best interests of the child analysis includes consideration of all factors which have an effect upon the child’s physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual well-being. The best interests of the child analysis generally includes consideration of any prior custody arrangements including the amount of time each parent has spent with the child in the past; the involvement of each parent in the child’s school, religious upbringing and medical care; whether there are other siblings or half-siblings in either parent’s residence; the child’s preference if the child can articulate a justifiable reason for the preference; the school district where each parent resides and the distance between the parents’ residences; whether either parent or the children suffer from any psychological or physical conditions; whether either parent abuses prescription or illegal drugs or alcohol; whether the parents are able to communicate and cooperate with each other regarding the children; whether either parent has attempted to undermine the other parent’s custody rights; and any other factors that may impact the minor children’s best interests.
Contact Our Experienced Montgomery County Child Custody & Chester County Child Custody Lawyers Today
Our Main Line child custody lawyers have represented several hundred parents who fought for their children’s best interests. Our Main Line custody lawyers were able to negotiate and settle many of these parents’ disputes, but also have extensive trial experience in custody cases fighting for what was right for the children and both parents in Montgomery County as well as Chester County, Bucks County and Delaware County.
Our Main Line child custody lawyers have represented hundreds of Montgomery County and Chester County child custody clients. We believe we are different from many other Main Line, Montgomery County family law attorneys and Chester County family law attorneys.
Our Main Line family law and child custody lawyers can be contacted via email, or please call the Law Offices of Jennifer J. Riley at 215-283-5080.