Basic concepts in Pennsylvania child custody law

Above all, custody is decided based on the child's best interests.

The end of a marriage is stressful enough, but when the couple has minor children, the concern over their future well-being can be overwhelming. The key to alleviating this stress is to begin to understand what Pennsylvania law says about the custody of children and how these rules are likely to apply to the family at issue.

Most importantly, all aspects of child custody are to be determined in light of what is in the best interest of the child. In addition, state law provides that neither parent should be assumed to be the better custodian such as because of the parent's gender.

A parent in this situation should seek early legal advice from an experienced Pennsylvania family lawyer to get the information needed to sort out and set goals for parenting issues in the divorce. It can be advantageous to try to negotiate child custody matters with the other parent, because an arrangement a couple can agree to between them is likely to be more satisfactory than what a judge might decide.

However, the high level of conflict in some divorces prevents marital settlement agreements in many situations, so the child custody arrangement must then be decided in court according to the requirements of Pennsylvania law.

Types of custody

Two kinds of custody must be assigned to one parent solely or both jointly:

  • Physical custody determines "actual physical possession and control" of the child and may be sole (exclusively with one parent), partial (for less than a majority of the time), primary (for the majority of the time) or shared (each has "significant periods" of physical custody).
  • Legal custody is the right to make parental decisions about all major life matters of the child, including religious, medical and educational decisions and may be shared or sole.

Relevant factors

The judge must decide custody based on the best interest of the child after considering all factors that are relevant, giving special weight to anything affecting the child's future safety. Specifically, a list of factors in the statute must be among those relevant factors considered:

  • Likelihood that parent will encourage frequent contact with the other parent
  • Current and past child and domestic abuse by a parent or anyone in the parent's home and ability to protect the child going forward
  • Parental duties each parent has performed
  • Child's need for stability in education, "family life and community life"
  • Extended family access
  • Sibling relationships
  • Child's custody preferences, depending on maturity
  • Parental efforts to alienate the child against the other parent (except to protect child from violence)
  • Which parent more likely to "maintain a loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship" with the child to meet the child's emotional needs
  • Which parent more likely to meet the child's "daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational and special needs"
  • Proximity of the parental residences
  • Parental ability to care for the child or to make child-care arrangements
  • Level of parental conflict and ability to cooperate
  • Parent or household member drug or alcohol abuse
  • Parent or household member mental and physical health

A Pennsylvania divorce attorney can answer questions in more detail concerning any individual situation.

Attorney Joe Guillama of The Law Offices of Joseph Guillama in Reading represents divorcing parents throughout Berks County.