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How do Pennsylvania courts decide child custody?

Judges or masters in each of Pennsylvania's counties decide child custody issues after holding a hearing. Courts weigh several factors from the people who file for custody, known as the parties, to determine the type of custody that serves the best interest of the child.

The filing of a petition in a county court is the first step in this process. A child had to live in a county for at least six months for a county court to have power to decide the case, except for a few exceptions. A parent or someone who acted as a parent and assumed parental responsibilities may seek custody. Under certain circumstances, there are grandparents' rights to custody.

Courts may listen to testimony from both parties. They also may present evidence, such as academic or medical records, important documents, photographs or other information that is relevant to custody.

A judge or master may also consider numerous factors. These include which party will encourage contact with the other parent, any past abuse, which party assumes parental responsibilities, stability and continuity in the child's life, the child's relationship with siblings, the availability of extended family, the child's preferences and the ability and availability of a party to care for the child's physical, emotional, educational and development needs. Certain criminal charges and convictions, particularly those relating to domestic abuse and drug and DUI-related crimes, must be considered.

The court will rule on physical custody and whether it will be shared or under supervision. It also rules on legal custody and which party makes important decisions for the child.

A party may file an expedited petition for custody or modified where the other party is facing a criminal charge. When a party or a member of the household faces or was convicted of certain criminal charges, evaluations and special counseling will be ordered.

When parties cannot reach a decision, courts may require each party to submit a parenting plan outlining each party's involvement with decisions and a custody schedule. A party who wants relocation with a child must seek court approval and provide at least 60 days' notice of this request to the other party.

Parties should seek legal representation to help assure that they can present a strong legal case. An attorney can assist parties with pursuing their legal rights.

Source: WomensLawProject.org, "PA's Child Custody Law: What you need to know," accessed on Nov. 18, 2016

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