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What is the Basic Process to Sue for Custody of a Child?

For a child’s biological parents (assuming that their rights have not been terminated and for a father, that paternity has been established), the first step in suing for custody of a child is filing a Custody Complaint.

Though grandparents and other individuals may sometimes also be able to file a Custody Complaint, it is often necessary for grandparents and others to first file a Petition to Intervene in order to prove that they have standing to file for custody of a child (standing means that a party is permitted to sue or seek redress from the court), as not every grandparent or other individual is legally able to sue for custody of a child. If there is an existing custody matter, once the Court grants the grandparent or other individual standing, they will most likely need to file a Petition to Modify to seek custody of the child.

After the Custody Complaint has been filed, most counties in Pennsylvania have a process for the case to be heard by a “conciliator” or “hearing officer,” who is an attorney appointed by the county to hear custody cases in their initial stages, rather than a judge. Some counties will first hold a brief “presentation” in front of a judge or conciliator, followed by a conciliation or custody conference before a conciliator. The purpose of a custody conciliation or custody conference is for the parties to attempt to reach an agreement on child custody, or if they cannot reach an agreement, to narrow down the issues in dispute. If parties reach an agreement at a conciliation, then an Order will be entered memorializing their agreement. If the parties do not agree, then they will typically be scheduled for a custody trial before a judge, though some counties have an intervening mediation process which parties must first complete.

Once a case has been referred to the judge, the parties may be scheduled for a pre-trial hearing or status conferences prior to the trial, where they will further attempt to narrow down the issues to be presented at trial and update the Court on the status of the case (including whether they have been able to reach an agreement). Assuming that the parties still have not resolved their custody dispute, they will eventually have the opportunity to present evidence and provide testimony in a custody trial before the judge. Ultimately, the judge will issue an Order outlining the parties’ legal and physical custody rights and responsibilities, including the custody schedule they must follow, transportation provisions, the child’s school attendance, and many other provisions. The judge is not constrained by what the parties have requested. A judge may direct the parties to follow a custody schedule that differs significantly from what either party requested. If a party disagrees with the judge’s decision, they may appeal that decision to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.

If you have questions about child custody, contact Tanner Law Offices at (717) 731-8114 to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys.