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Custody Trial: What to Expect

If you will be attending a custody trial, whether you are a parent or are involved in the case in another way (such as a witness), you probably have a lot of questions about the process. Feeling prepared can help lessen your anxiety and help you participate in the proceedings in the most productive way possible.

A custody trial is not the first step in custody proceedings in Pennsylvania. Parties will generally attend a conciliation first, and may later attend a mediation, a status conference, or a pre-trial conference, depending on their county and the judge assigned to their case. Throughout the process, the parties will have the opportunity to settle, i.e. to come to an agreement without proceeding to the custody trial. When that is not possible, the custody trial will move forward.

Custody trials generally take place in a courtroom, and a judge always presides over the trial. While being in a real courtroom with a judge conjures up dramatic images from legal shows in many people’s minds, the reality is usually much less daunting. Most courtrooms have a raised area up front where the judge sits, a witness stand by the judge, a lower area up front with tables for the attorneys and parties, a jury box on the side (which won’t be occupied during a custody trial), and seats in the back for witnesses and observers. A lot of modern courtrooms will also have technology that may be used during your trial, such as a television screen, projector, conference call technology, etc.

While the judge will always preside over a custody trial, the list of others who will participate may vary greatly from case to case. Other court and sheriff’s office staff, such as the judge’s clerk, the tip staff, sheriff’s deputies, and a court reporter will typically be present to assist the judge. Parties may choose to have attorneys, but that is not a requirement. The parties themselves—generally parents, but sometimes grandparents or other relatives, guardians, or other individuals who care for the child(ren)—are required to be present. The parties may have chosen witnesses to be present to testify, and often, parties may bring other observers for moral support if they choose to do so. If you are unsure of your judge’s or your local court’s policies regarding who may be present, you should contact your attorney or the Court ahead of time.

The attorneys, parties, witnesses, court staff, and finally the judge, will usually start to filter into the courtroom ahead of the trial. The attorneys and/or parties will sit at the tables up front. When the judge comes into the room—usually last—everyone in the courtroom will be asked to stand, and then the judge will tell them to be seated. Typically, the judge will resolve any preliminary matters with the attorneys and/or parties at the beginning, such as whether witnesses will be required to sit outside, how the judge wants particular evidence to be presented, etc.

After any preliminary business has been resolved, the plaintiff or moving party or their attorney, if they have one, will generally start to present their case, calling any witnesses (including the plaintiff). The defendant or non-moving party or their attorney will have the opportunity to question the other party’s witnesses. After the plaintiff or moving party is done presenting their case, the defendant or non-moving party will begin, and the plaintiff or moving party will have the opportunity to question their witnesses, as well. Often, an attorney or a party might have an objection when the opposing party is presenting his or her case, and the judge will resolve any objections before proceeding. Through the parties’ and other witnesses’ testimony, exhibits may be introduced. Exhibits are evidence, including but not limited to printed text messages, photos, videos, school records, expert reports, and many other types of documents.

It is important for the parties and the witnesses to be honest and respectful throughout the trial. Custody trials can be emotional, but you won’t win any points from the judge or anyone else by being dishonest or rude to the judge, either of the attorneys, or anyone else in the courtroom. In extreme cases, individuals who are disruptive or combative during the trial may be held in contempt of court, and lying in court (perjury) is a criminal offense.

At the close of the proceedings, many judges will indicate that they need time to make their decision, and will later issue a written decision and order. Some judges will deliberate and issue a decision directly after the custody trial.

After the judge issues a decision, the parties have up to thirty (30) days to appeal, or they may have the option to file a motion asking the judge to reconsider his decision.

If you are interested in discussing your custody matter, please contact Tanner Law Offices at 717-836-0471 to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys.