When you’re going through a divorce in Pennsylvania, there are a number of difficult decisions you and your former spouse must make, such as potential alimony payments and the division of marital property and assets. If you have children together, you’ll need to find a child custody order that works well for all parties involved – including your kids.
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends that parents do their best to work out this arrangement by sitting down and determining what is in the best interests of their children. It’s important to try to shield children from conflict between you and your former spouse. If you’re able to reach a custody agreement through amicable means, you may file an order of custody with your local state court to finalize the terms.
However, sometimes couples going through divorce struggle with reaching an agreement when it comes to the custody and visitation of their children. In these situations, one party should file a complaint for custody or partial custody with a Pennsylvania state court. When this is done, the parents – or occasionally grandparents or other relatives – usually must attend a multi hour education seminar to help them better communicate and serve as co-parents.
The parents might also be ordered to attend mediation, a form of alternative dispute resolution in which a mediator helps both parties reach a sound agreement. The parties will also have to attend an initial child custody conference with a custody master. Counties differ as to whether mediation is held and what step in the process it occurs. It is essential that you retain an attorney who is familiar with the process in the county where custody is being addressed. If no agreement is possible between the parties, then a court hearing will be held in front of a judge. At this hearing, all parties will have to present evidence and testify before the judge in an effort to establish what custody schedule will be in the best interest of the children. This gives judges the ability to examine evidence to determine what is in the best interests of the children involved and make a ruling based on this information. Once you arrive at this stage, you no longer have any control over the possible custody schedule.
How Pennsylvania courts look at a child custody order
Generally, a judge will seek to facilitate a joint custody arrangement if at all possible. Most judges operate with the belief that a child should have a significant relationship with both parents. However, when courts examine evidence related to the fitness of a child’s parents in a custody battle, they consider a number of factors. In total there are 17 different custody factors that a judge must consider before deciding on a custody schedule. Using these various factors, the judge must set up an arrangement that is in the best interest of the kids. This is not an easy job.
Here are the 17 factors that the court must consider before it can make a decision about custody.
(1) Which party is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between the child and another party.
(2) The present and past abuse committed by a party or member of the party’s household, whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child or an abused party and which party can better provide adequate physical safeguards and supervision of the child.
(2.1) The information set forth in section 5329.1(a) (relating to consideration of child abuse and involvement with protective services).
(3) The parental duties performed by each party on behalf of the child.
(4) The need for stability and continuity in the child’s education, family life and community life.
(5) The availability of extended family.
(6) The child’s sibling relationships.
(7) The well-reasoned preference of the child, based on the child’s maturity and judgment.
(8) The attempts of a parent to turn the child against the other parent, except in cases of domestic violence where reasonable safety measures are necessary to protect the child from harm.
(9) Which party is more likely to maintain a loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship with the child adequate for the child’s emotional needs.
(10) Which party is more likely to attend to the daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational and special needs of the child.
(11) The proximity of the residences of the parties.
(12) Each party’s availability to care for the child or ability to make appropriate child-care arrangements.
(13) The level of conflict between the parties and the willingness and ability of the parties to cooperate with one another. A party’s effort to protect a child from abuse by another party is not evidence of unwillingness or inability to cooperate with that party.
(14) The history of drug or alcohol abuse of a party or member of a party’s household.
(15) The mental and physical condition of a party or member of a party’s household.
(16) Any other relevant factor.
Every custody order is different. Not every factor is present in every case. Judges may see one factor as more important in one case and not as important in another case. It is important that you hire a lawyer experienced with the court process in the county in which custody is being heard.
Parents often wonder if their children will be involved in the custody process. Is the judge going to speak with your children? Does what my kids say matter? These are types of questions that we can answer for you during your free initial consultation with one of our lawyers.
Often judges often seek to maintain the status quo if it is working, so if the children have been in a situation for a period of time in which they are flourishing and receiving love, care and attention, the court likely won’t wish to interrupt that. The same is true for maintaining housing arrangements in which siblings can stay together.
It is important to note that courts do not typically consider parents’ incomes beyond ensuring that they can meet a child’s basic needs. Further, courts no longer operate under the basis that kids should be with their mother most of the time, and instead do not factor in gender when reaching their decisions.
Custody battles can be stressful for both parents and children. If you would like to negotiate a custody arrangement or need help guiding through a custody order, contact an experienced family law attorney in Lancaster, Lebanon, or Wyomissing, Pennsylvania.