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Basics of Pennsylvania's child custody

Determining child custody is one of the most significant issues during divorce or the end of a relationship. Pennsylvania courts determine legal custody or the parent who makes decisions governing the child's health care, education and other major matters. Physical custody determines which parent has the child in their care.

Shared legal custody allows both parents to make important decisions for the child after they confer. Sole legal custody allows only one parent to make these decisions.

Primary physical custody only grants possession to one parent for most of the time. Under shared custody, both parents may have frequent contact with the children. Partial physical custody allows unsupervised visitation for specified time periods. Courts may order supervised visitation if one of the parents is a known danger to the child.

Parents can enter an agreement and ask the court to adopt it through a custody order. Otherwise, a court has to rule on custody after a parent files a complaint.

Both natural parents have the right to seek custody if their rights were not ended in an adoption proceeding. Someone who legally adopted the children, a grandparent who cared for the child for at least 12 months or when the child was substantially at risk, or anyone who cared for the children for a substantial period may also have rights.

A judge determines custody or modification of a custody order based on matters impacting the best interests of the child. Judges do not consider the parties' relative income if the party can afford the child's basic needs, party's gender and infidelity if it does not harm the child. Courts will review how any new relationship impacts the child.

The child's best interest is based upon numerous matters including the party will encourage important relationships, whether a party committed abuse or harm, duties performed for the child's benefit and stability, continuity in important parts of the child's life, sibling relationships and the availability of extended family. Other elements include the child's preferences, ability to care for the child or make child-care arrangements, whether a parent had substance abuse problems and the parent's mental and physical condition, and the ability to meet the child's daily needs.

Source: Neighborhood Legal Services Association, "Custody law in Pennsylvania," Accessed July 3, 2016

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