Filing for Child Custody in Pennsylvania: 5 Steps

Prior to filing, explore your options for resolving your case:

Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.

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If you hire an attorney, they file your case for you. If you choose to settle or litigate independently, either parent can follow the steps below to file for custody.

Keep in mind, some requirements may vary by case and county.

Step 1: Decide whether to e-file

Many Pennsylvania counties let parents file electronically (known as e-filing). They include:

Some counties, such as Lehigh, even require e-filing.

Step 2: Fill out your paperwork

Complete e-fillable forms on your computer or obtain physical forms from your county court or online. If you're completing physical forms, use black ink. For e-forms, type with double spacing.

At the top of your forms, list the county your child has lived in for the past six months (or since birth if they're less than six months old). If your child moved within the past six months, list their previous county of residence. You'll file with the court in this county.

The person starting the case is the plaintiff, while the other party is the defendant. Leave the case or docket number blank for now.

The following forms are required in every initial custody case:

  • Complaint for Custody: Name each person involved in the case and specify the type of custody you're seeking. Leave the verification section blank until you visit a notary (more in Step 3).
  • Confidential Information Form: List Social Security numbers and other confidential identification information. Complete the Abuse Victim Addendum if you've experienced domestic violence.
  • Certificate of Compliance: Sign this to confirm confidential information only appears on the above form.
  • Criminal Record/Abuse History Verification Form: State whether anyone in your household has a criminal or violent history.
  • Notice to Defend: Notify the defendant they must file a written appearance to participate in court proceedings. Only fill in your and the defendant's names.
  • Scheduling Order: Used by the court to inform the parties of their first court date. Do not fill in boxes 10, 11 or 13.

If you won't have an attorney, complete a Self-Represented Party Entry of Appearance.

If you cannot afford filing fees, complete a Petition to Proceed In Forma Pauperis to ask the court to waive them.

Apply for address confidentiality if it's unsafe for the defendant to know where you live.

Some counties require additional paperwork. For example, Philadelphia County requires a Domestic Relations Information Sheet. Ask your county court if it has unique forms or procedures.

Step 3: Finalize your paperwork

If you completed your forms online, skip to Step 4. If you completed physical forms, sign the verification section of the complaint in front of a notary now.

Then, if you'll e-file, scan the forms to your computer.

Or, if you'll file in person, make three copies of the complaint and Notice to Defend, plus one copy of the other forms. In addition, print two blank versions of the Criminal Record/Abuse History Verification Form. Parents filing in Philadelphia County also need to include a stamped envelope with the defendant's last known address.

Step 4: Open your case

To open a custody case, you have to pay a fee between $57 and $300, depending on your county. You may pay less if you already have a divorce or separation case open. E-filing may bring an additional fee.

To e-file, go to your county court's website, register for e-filing and follow the directions to upload your documents. You'll need to provide a valid email address for the defendant.

To file in person, take your paperwork to the court. A prothonotary or, in Philadelphia and Delaware counties, clerk of court will accept your forms. They'll fill in the case number, timestamp the documents and give copies back to you. In Philadelphia County, the clerk will keep the defendant's copies for service, making this the last step in your filing.

In four to six weeks, you'll receive a Scheduling Order in the mail stating the date of your first court appearance. Some counties require you to serve a copy to the defendant, while others do it for you.

Step 5: Serve the other parent

Service is the process of getting court documents to the other parent to notify them that you've opened a case. Within 30 days of filing, you must serve the defendant with the documents given to you in Step 4.

Unless spending time with the other parent would put the child at risk, lawyers recommend adding a proposed custody schedule to show you're not trying to take the kids away. This often leads the defendant to accept service.

Three methods of service exist: electronic, mail and personal. You have to serve electronically if you e-filed, and parents who did not e-file cannot use this method.

Some defendants refuse service in an effort to avoid court, since the case cannot proceed until they're served. If you suspect this may happen, it's best to use personal service.

Electronic service

The e-filing system will automatically serve the defendant. Unless your county requires e-filing, the defendant can refuse service and request you provide physical forms.

Service by mail

To serve by mail, send two separate packets to the defendant's last known address or workplace — one through certified mail and the other via standard mail. If either parent has a Protection from Abuse Order against the other, they must send the forms to the defendant's workplace.

Each packet should contain a time-stamped and notarized complaint, a Notice to Defend and a blank Criminal Record/Abuse History Verification Form. The certified mailing should also include a blank Acceptance of Service.

If the defendant signs the return receipt for your certified mailing, you'll receive it in the mail. File the return receipt, the send receipt and a completed Affidavit of Service by Mail within 10 days of when the defendant signed.

If the defendant refuses your certified mailing but the post office doesn't return your standard mailing within 15 days, service is complete. You must file the returned certified mailing with a note stating the defendant refused service, plus an affidavit stating the standard mail was not returned.

If the defendant refuses your certified mailing and the post office returns your standard mailing within 15 days, you must use personal service.

Personal service

You cannot personally serve the defendant, but any nonrelative over 18 and uninvolved in the case may, such as a friend, process server or sheriff.

They must serve a Notice to Defend, a blank Criminal Record/Abuse History Verification form and two copies of the time-stamped and notarized complaint directly to the defendant or a:

  • Member of the defendant's household
  • Manager or front-desk clerk at the defendant's residence
  • Coworker at the defendant's workplace

To ask a sheriff to serve, complete a Civil Process Service Request form, available at the sheriff's office. Fees vary by county, ranging from $58 to $175. The sheriff will confirm with the court that the defendant received the forms.

Using a process server is generally cheaper, starting at $75. Process servers can locate the other parent if their whereabouts are unknown.

If someone other than a sheriff delivers the paperwork, he or she must complete and file an Affidavit of Personal Service.

Information for defendants

If you accept service by mail, you must file an Acceptance of Service form within 10 days.

If you won't hire an attorney for your case, file a Self-Represented Party Entry of Appearance form within 20 days of service. Otherwise, your attorney must draft a written appearance.

All defendants must file a Criminal Record/Abuse History Verification within 30 days of receiving service.

Filing an answer within 20 days of service is optional. It allows you to deny any accusations and state what you want for your child. It's best to hire an attorney to write this, but you may draft one independently.

Title the document Answer. Copy the names of the court and each party as they appear on the custody complaint, as well as the case number. Below that, include numbered responses to each of the plaintiff's claims. For example, if you disagree with a claim in paragraph one of the complaint, precede your response with 1.

Defendants filing in person sign their documents in front of a notary, then make one copy of each (but two copies of an answer). Then, they take the documents to the county court where the case was filed. E-filers use the same e-filing provider as the plaintiff.

Within 30 days of filing an answer, mail one copy to the plaintiff (or their attorney) via certified mail, or ask a third party to serve it. Keep the other copy for your records.

Preparing for what comes next

The next step in the court process depends on your county. You'll attend an orientation about mediation, a parenting seminar or a conciliation conference.

No matter what's next for you, take advantage of technology to be fully prepared.

The Custody X Change online app offers custom custody calendars, parent-to-parent messaging, an expense tracker and more.

You can use it to put together proposals for the other parent, negotiate, prepare settlement paperwork or organize evidence.

Be prepared for every step of your case with Custody X Change.

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