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Navigating Child Custody: Understanding Legal Rights and Responsibilities

Child custody is a serious matter that is important to parents, children, and families. The decisions you make now will have a profound impact on everyone for years to come. Child custody can be a complex matter. Pennsylvania has some laws in place to govern the legal rights and responsibilities of parents and different jurisdictions within the state have their own procedures for how they handle child custody. An experienced child custody attorney will answer your questions and guide you through the child custody process. 

Types of Child Custody in Pennsylvania

There are two main types of custody in Pennsylvania including legal custody and physical custody. Pennsylvania statutes define legal custody as “The right to make major decisions on behalf of the child, including but not limited to, medical, religious, and educational decisions.” Physical custody is “the actual physical possession and control of a child.” Both parents share responsibilities and rights regarding their children. 

There are various categories of child custody in Pennsylvania. A child often resides primarily with one parent while the other parent has visitation. A court will make the determination regarding custody and visitation of children. 

Shared Custody

Shared custody is a common type of custody in which both parents have legal or physical responsibility for a child. Parents in this custody arrangement must work together to make decisions on behalf of the child. These decisions include such things as where the child will attend school, where the child will reside, and decisions about medical care, to name a few. 

Sole Custody

When a parent has sole custody it means that they are the only parent who is allowed to make decisions regarding the child. The parent will make all decisions that affect the child’s well-being. A parent may get sole custody in rare situations when the other parent has demonstrated that they are irresponsible or unable to make sound decisions and their input could have a negative impact on the welfare of the child. 

Primary Custody

A parent may be named the primary custodian of a child. The primary custodial parent has responsibility for the child the majority of the time. The other parent will generally have regular visitation with the child. 

Partial Custody

Partial custody means that each parent has specific responsibilities over particular aspects of a child’s life. A parent or guardian with partial custody does not have full parental rights. Partial custody may be granted in certain situations where the judge feels it is warranted. 

Supervised Custody

Supervised custody means that a parent has visits with the child only when an authorized party is present to oversee the interaction. A judge may order supervised custody when they feel the parent has a history of issues that could be detrimental to the child. Supervised custody is also called supervised visitation. It may be ordered on a temporary or long-term condition and the judge may remove the condition later if the parent demonstrates capability. 

Temporary or Final Child Custody Orders

There are several types of child custody orders that a court may provide. A temporary custody order may be in place while a couple is separated and until a final order is made as part of divorce. A parent may seek emergency temporary custody in situations in which there is a concern regarding the immediate safety or well-being of a child. A final child custody order provides a long-term provision for the custody of a child. 

Factors a Judge Uses to Determine Child Custody

The judge will ultimately make the final decision regarding child custody. The court will always act in the best interests of the child. 

  • The relationship with the parents
  • The mental and physical health of the parents
  • Finances of the parents
  • Ability to provide care
  • Criminal history of parents

It is essential to know that the judge will weigh the various factors in making a decision regarding the living arrangements of a child. In some cases, the judge will take the child’s wishes into consideration, in cases where the child is older and able to make mature choices. The main goal is to ensure that the child has a stable and loving environment where they have all their needs met. 

Unmarried Parents

When a child is born to married parents, they are presumed to be the child’s legal parents. When parents are not married, the situation can be a bit more complicated. An unmarried father is entitled to all the rights as a married father once he establishes paternity. You can establish paternity by signing the birth certificate or affidavit, or through the courts. To establish paternity through the court you must submit to DNA testing to prove that you are the child’s father. A knowledgeable family law attorney will assist you through the legal process to ensure that you establish parental rights. 

Modifying Child Custody

Once the court puts a child custody order in place the court will only consider making a modification if there is a material change in circumstances. The parent who wishes to modify the order must prove that there is a change that justifies it. There are two ways to modify a child custody agreement. The parents may both agree to the change through a mutual modification agreement or by obtaining a court order. To seek a modification through the courts, you will need to file a request for a hearing. Both parents will be allowed to present their side to the judge. 

Co-Parenting After Divorce

Divorced parents need to learn how to be effective co-parents after they end their marriage. Parents should establish good communication so they can discuss their child on a regular basis. A parent cannot withhold court-ordered visitation. The court may require you to participate in the Generations Program. This is a method of dispute resolution that includes participation in a parenting education seminar and mediation. The purpose of the program is to assist parents in improving communication and parenting skills to benefit their children. 

Parents need to make the best child custody decisions for their children. The divorce process provides for considerable consideration to the short and long term needs of the children. If you are ending your marriage, you will need to learn the options for the best child custody decisions now and for the future. To learn more, contact us at Joe Pometto Law at (412) 790-9931 to request a consultation.

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