Custody in Pennsylvania – How to Navigate New Terrain

by Joseph Kemmerling

When parents make the difficult decision to end a relationship, it can be a very difficult transition. There is a lot to think about, and there is a lot of information thrown at them at once. From figuring out holidays to figuring out living situations, it can seem like a lot to adjust to. Whatever the custodial situation ultimately looks like, most people who decide to separate will spend significantly less time with their children than they did prior to the separation. Understandably, this can seem daunting. However, Pennsylvania has developed a legal process to provide stability and continuity in children’s lives.

            In Pennsylvania, there are two main types of custody: legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody is who makes the major life decisions in the child’s life, such as medical decisions, educational decisions, religious decisions, etc. On the other hand, physical custody determines which party has the child and when. Pennsylvania custody cases can be complicated and often involve multiple steps and court appearances. However, having a Custody Order in place can provide the parties with a concrete, enforceable written document that clearly lays out the parties’ obligations to the children and each other.

            When considering custody, there are several considerations that parties should take into account, including what school the children will be attending, who has more overnight time with the children, what childcare will look like, how the parties will manage medical appointments, how extra-curricular activities will impact the custodial schedule, and how the parties will handle summer vacation and the academic year. For many parents, these decisions seem overwhelming. However, there are many options that parents can look to in order to try to come up with a custodial schedule that works for both parties.

            Unfortunately, even with an order in place, disputes may still arise. Despite the parties’ best efforts, these disputes may not be able to be resolved between the parties themselves. When this happens, parties have several options they can choose from in order to address the issues. Parties can vie with the Court for formal modifications to the Custody Order, or they can ask the Court to hold the other party accountable.

            Custody Orders are modifiable, as things can change throughout your child’s upbringing. For example, some parties may have a Custody Order in place long before the children reach school age. Thereafter, they may not be able to agree on new provisions to address the changes that come with schooling or with what school the children should be enrolled in. Filing to modify an Order is a way to allow the Courts to help the parties figure out the next steps.

            You can also ask the Court to hold the other party in contempt if they are not following the custody Order. The ability to file for contempt underscores why starting an action for custody can be so beneficial. Having a well-reasoned Custody Order in place provides parties with the ability to create structure and ensure that both sides are following the structure they have agreed to. Many people decide to come up with verbal or written agreements outside of Court, but in Pennsylvania, the best way to ensure that the other party will follow the agreement is by initiating a Custody Action and ensuring the agreement is entered as an Order of Court.

            Custodial arrangements can be difficult and complicated, and determining what needs to be included in a Custody arrangement can be daunting. Having a Family Law Attorney sit down and help you craft up a proposed agreement can ensure that you are able to put in place a workable agreement that can create stability and continuity in your life and your children’s lives. As I often say to people, co-parenting is easy when it’s easy, but having a structure in place for when it’s hard can make the hard times a little easier.

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