7 Steps to Getting Child Custody in a Pennsylvania Court

In Pennsylvania, some aspects of the child custody process differ from one county to the next. The following are the most common steps.

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Before you decide to go to court, consider your circumstances.

If you have a working arrangement with the other parent, you don't have to open a custody case, but you should if you want violating the agreement to have legal consequences.

You should also open a case if you can't agree with the other parent, especially if they have been violent toward you or your child or won't allow you to see your child.

Keep in mind that you can use mediation and other alternative dispute resolution methods to reach an agreement.

Whenever parents agree on a parenting plan, they can file a settlement and jump to Step 7 of the court process.

Step 1: Preparation

Do your research and consider your options. Which type of custody will you request? What does your ideal parenting schedule look like?

Consider hiring an attorney or at least scheduling a consultation for professional advice.

Check your court's website and its Rules of Civil Procedure for county-specific information, including local deadlines and time frames.

Step 2: Filing for custody

Open your case 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 your child recently moved, file in their previous county.

Afterward, have the other parent served. (In other words, have the court documents delivered.)

Possible: Emergency or expedited hearing

Anytime during your case, you can request an emergency or expedited hearing. Do it as soon as the need arises.

Request an emergency hearing if your child faces immediate danger. The hearing — in which the judge decides whether to issue an emergency order — can happen within hours or days, and may be done "ex parte" (without the other parent's involvement).

Philadelphia County parents have an extra option: request an expedited hearing to address non-emergency issues that need quick review. These hearings result in temporary orders, at the judge's discretion. They are more common than emergency hearings, but may not happen for several weeks.

Possible: 30-day requirements

Some counties require both parents to participate in a parenting seminar and/or mediation orientation in the 30 days after opening a case.

Parenting seminar

These seminars focus on how to co-parent and spare children from conflict.

Focus on Children and Course for Parents are available to all Pennsylvania parents. However, counties offering their own seminars may not recognize outside programs.

If you're required to take a seminar, failure to do so could result in dismissal of your case, contempt charges or loss of custodial rights.

Mediation orientation

In many counties, parents in custody cases must attend an orientation, where a mediator helps them decide whether to try mediation or skip it to go straight to the steps below.

If your family has a Protection from Abuse Order or a recent history of domestic violence, you're exempt from this requirement.

Step 3: Conciliation conference

At least 45 days after you open a case, you'll attend a conciliation conference (also called a custody masters hearing) with the other parent. You'll explore options for avoiding trial, and the conference officer may speak with your child privately.

The officer can approve an agreement made before or during the conference. If the agreement is for temporary orders, continue through the remaining steps. If it's for final orders, jump to Step 7.

If parents don't reach an understanding, the officer writes a recommended custody order. The officer may also advise the judge to order an evaluation, a guardian ad litem, etc.

In some counties, the recommendation becomes a final order if neither parent requests a pre-trial conference within 20 or 30 days of its issuance.

Possible: Hearings

The court may summon you to a hearing to gather more case information.

For example, Allegheny County has partial custody hearings, which give parents another opportunity to reach a settlement after unsuccessful conciliation or mediation. These hearings occur by a judge's order, which a parent can motion for.

If parents don't agree during the partial custody hearing, the hearing officer writes a recommendation that becomes a final order if neither party files a request for a trial within 20 days of its issuance.

Step 4: Discovery

Discovery is the exchange of information before trial. It begins when either parent files a Motion to Compel Discovery, and it ends at the pre-trial conference (explained below).

Information you have to turn over might include texts, emails, financial records and medical records. Depositions, out-of-court proceedings where the parties or their witnesses answer questions under oath, also take place as part of discovery.

All this information helps each side prepare their arguments thoroughly.

Possible: Custody evaluation

Complicated cases may need a forensic custodial evaluation. Either parent can ask the judge to order one, or the judge can order one of their own accord. Bucks County requires an evaluation in almost all custody cases.

During the evaluation, a mental health professional reviews relevant documents and interviews children, parents and others connected to the case. They may also conduct psychological testing on the family.

They put their findings into a report that includes recommendations for custody. The judge considers the report when making a custody decision.

Alongside evaluations, Philadelphia County uses home investigations to determine whether a parent's home is safe for a child.

Possible: Judicial conference

When parents with lawyers disagree on only a few remaining issues, they usually have a judicial conference.

At the request of a parent or the judge, the parents come together to hear the judge's thoughts on the case, which often leads them to settle. If parents don't settle, the judge schedules the case for trial.

Step 5: Pre-trial conference

Thirty days before trial, the parents meet with a judge or conference officer to exchange final discovery information and clarify trial procedures. They also discuss settlement one last time to see if they can forgo trial.

At least five days before the conference, each party must file a pre-trial statement and serve it on the other party. They can modify their statement up to seven days before trial.

The pre-trial statement must include:

  • A proposed parenting plan and custody schedule
  • Names and addresses of each witness you'll call to testify, plus your relationships to each lay (non-expert) witness
  • Confirmation that you have contacted each witness
  • Descriptions of the exhibits (documents, photos, other evidence) you'll present at trial

Attach the actual exhibits to the statement you serve on the other parent but not to the copy you give the court.

Step 6: Trial

If parents are unable to reach an agreement, they will ultimately end up in trial.

In a trial, both parties have the opportunity to explore their evidence in its entirety and question witnesses in front of the judge.

Generally, trials begin about a month after the pre-trial conference. Most resolve after a single day of testimony. At the end of the trial, the judge announces their decisions.

Possible: Child's private testimony

Children who are old enough testify privately in the judge's chambers on a nontrial day, unless both parents agree it'd be harmful to the child.

The judge, each parent's attorney, a guardian ad litem and a court reporter are usually present. Parents can request to read the transcript, but the judge may deny their motion.

Step 7: Final custody orders

The custody process ends when the judge signs a final custody order after a trial, after approving a settlement or after the deadline to object to a recommended order passes.

The final order mandates a parenting plan and custody schedule for parents to follow. It remains in effect until the child turns 18 or the court grants a modification.

If a parent has a valid reason to contest a court's decision, they can appeal to a higher court (following the Children's Fast Track appeal rules) and begin the legal process again, or file a motion to change or cancel the court order.

Throughout your case

During the child custody process, you may need to create a parenting plan, draft custody schedules, keep a log of interactions with the other parent, and more.

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

With a parenting plan template, customizable custody calendars, a parenting journal and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to custody.

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

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