Pennsylvania child custody: the basics

Pennsylvania law requires all custody decisions be made to meet the child’s best interests.

Child custody determinations are of grave concern to a parent facing divorce. In Pennsylvania, this area of law revolves around the child's best interest.

As a practical matter, the parents may be able to decide child custody issues between them in negotiation and set them out in a marital settlement agreement for submission to the court. If the parents cannot agree, the judge will decide based on Pennsylvania child custody law.

Preliminarily, Pennsylvania law has some unique terminology concerning physical custody (physical possession and control of a child) and legal custody (the right to make major life decisions for a child):

  • Shared physical custody means the parents each have the right to significant periods of physical custody.
  • Primary physical custody means the parent has physical custody for a majority of the time.
  • Partial physical custody means the parent has physical custody for less than a majority of the time.
  • Sole physical custody means one parent has exclusive physical custody.
  • Supervised physical custody means custodial time with a parent who is supervised during that time.
  • Shared legal custody means the parents both have rights to legal custody.
  • Sole legal custody means only one parent has legal custody rights.

The judge may choose from among these types of custody to devise an arrangement in the child's best interest. Pennsylvania law says that there is no presumption that one parent is favored over the other.

If the parents end up in court and the judge must determine what custody arrangements are in a child's best interest, the judge can order the parties to submit parenting plans that lay out the details of their respective proposed arrangements. Parenting plans include terms related to the child's residential and parenting time schedule, education, religion, health care, child care, transportation, parental dispute resolution procedure and anything else the court requests or that is in the child's best interest.

The proposed parenting plans help the judge in his or her decision making regarding the child. The judge may also order that a medical or behavioral health professional evaluate the parties or make custody recommendations.

Pennsylvania law directs the judge to make any custody decision in the best interest of the child with no preference based on gender by considering "all relevant factors" with added weight to factors impacting the child's safety and specifically 16 required factors, one of which is a catch-all of any other relevant factor. Examples of the required factors include

  • Which parent will encourage contact with the other parent
  • Abuse by a parent or household member and continued risk, including which parent can better protect and supervise the child
  • Past abuse and involvement of protective services
  • Each parent's provision of parental duties
  • Need for continuity in education, family and community
  • Extended family contact
  • Sibling relationships
  • Child's "well-reasoned preference," considering "maturity and judgment"
  • Which parent is more likely to support the child's emotional needs through a "loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship"
  • Which parent is more likely to meet the child's daily "physical, emotional developmental, educational and special needs"
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Mental and physical health
  • And more

Any parent facing divorce, especially involving children, should seek the legal advice and representation of an experienced family law attorney such as Tabetha Tanner of Tanner Law Offices, LLC, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Keywords: Pennsylvania, child custody, parent, divorce, shared physical custody, primary physical custody, partial physical custody, legal custody