Pennsylvania Child Custody Overview

If separated parents need a judge to set a parenting arrangement for them, they have to open a custody case and go to trial.

If separated parents have a working arrangement, they're not required to open a case. However, doing so allows them to make their setup legally enforceable through a settlement.

For help agreeing on a setup before or after opening a case — in order to settle and avoid trial — parents can use an alternative to litigating, such as mediation or collaborative law.

Custody is a complex issue with no one-size-fits-all approach; requirements and processes vary slightly by case and county.

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Legal and physical custody

Two types of child custody exist: legal and physical.

Legal custody is the right to make decisions about the health, education and welfare of a child. You can have:

  • Shared legal custody: Parents divide or collaborate on major decisions. (This is the court's preferred option, when appropriate.)
  • Sole legal custody: One parent makes all major decisions, while the other can only make minor decisions when caring for the child.

Your parenting plan establishes the type of legal custody your family will have. For shared legal custody, it can specify decisions that must be left to one parent or made jointly. For example, one parent may have power over education choices, while both have to agree on medical decisions.

Physical custody designates which parent the child lives with. You can have:

  • Shared physical custody: The child lives with each parent for nearly equal time. (This is the court's preferred option, when appropriate.)
  • Primary/partial physical custody: One parent receives primary custody and gets most of the parenting time. The other parent typically receives partial custody, getting the remaining parenting time. If it's unsafe for the child to be alone with that parent, the court may order supervised partial custody.
  • Sole physical custody: The child lives exclusively with one parent. This is only awarded in rare circumstances, like when the other parent has severe substance abuse issues.

A custody schedule explains the details of your physical custody arrangement.

How to begin your case

File a custody complaint through the Court of Common Pleas in the county where your child has lived for the past six months (or since birth, if they're less than six months old). If the child moved in the past six months, file in their previous county of residence.

Most counties have a prothonotary who collects your paperwork, but Philadelphia and Delaware counties have clerks of court.

Factors in custody decisions

The court awards custody to the parent or parents who can best serve the child's interests. It considers each parent's:

  • Time spent with the child
  • Availability (e.g., work schedule)
  • Capacity to provide for the child
  • Ability to provide a stable home environment
  • History of crime, violence or substance abuse
  • Mental and physical health
  • Conflict with the other parent
  • Potential to encourage continuing contact between the child and other parent

The court also considers the child's preference (more below) and relationships with siblings and extended family. Recommendations by a conference officer, custody evaluator or guardian ad litem can also influence the judge's decision.

Your child's involvement

The court has several methods of gathering information from a child and understanding their wishes.

Your child may have a guardian ad litem (to represent their best interests) or a child's attorney (to represent their wants).

Children who are mature enough can testify. They usually testify privately, unless parents agree testifying at all would be detrimental to the child. Parents can also call their child to testify in open court.

In some counties, a conference officer may interview the child at the conciliation conference, as well.

Length of custody proceedings

Although Pennsylvania law advises that custody cases should resolve within 180 days, many cases — especially those that go to trial — exceed this time limit due to congested court calendars.

Discovery (when parties exchange information to prepare for trial) can itself take several months, and it's just one of seven steps in the custody process.

Costs to expect

Going to court over custody can be expensive. The most cost-effective plan is to reach a compromise early. For assistance, you might try mediation or collaborative law, which tend to be much cheaper than litigation due to their speed.

If you hire a lawyer, that will be your biggest expense. Rates vary by county, experience and firm size. Lawyers in larger counties charge an estimated $250 to $700 per hour, while in smaller counties they may charge $100 to $200 per hour. Trials can cost anywhere from $5,000 to tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees.

Some cases require an evaluator or a guardian ad litem, which can each increase total costs by thousands.

Initial filing fees for custody can cost up to $300. If you can't afford them, ask the court for a fee waiver.

Representing yourself

You can represent yourself in court, although it's not recommended, due to the complexity of law.

As a pro se (self-representing) party, you'll be held to the same court rules and standards as an attorney. Familiarize yourself with all the resources available to parents seeking custody, and consider paying an attorney to advise you on specific aspects of your case (called limited-scope representation).

If you reach a settlement, you should have a professional look over your agreement to ensure it covers all the bases and is formatted correctly. You can also use the Custody X Change template to ensure your document is court-ready.


All court hearings for civil proceedings are open to the public. Only in rare circumstances, such as a high profile case, will the judge restrict the public from attending.

To keep the details of your case private, consider using an alternative dispute resolution method, like mediation or collaborative law.

If you're the victim of domestic violence, you can ask the court to conceal your address from the other parent.

Pennsylvania custody laws

For more details on custody law, see Title 23, Chapter 53 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes.

Staying organized

The process of deciding custody requires serious organization. You may need to create a parenting plan, draft multiple custody schedules, track your time with your child, calculate expenses and beyond.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of that in one place.

With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, an expense tracker and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to child custody.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

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