Special Circumstances in Pennsylvania Child Custody

No two child custody cases are the same. Find information below on circumstances that may arise during your case.

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Uncertain paternity

A man automatically becomes the legal father of any child born to his wife during marriage. When an unmarried woman gives birth, both parents can sign an Acknowledgement of Paternity to establish the legal father. Otherwise, the child will not have a legally recognized father.

A mother, legal father or alleged father may open a paternity case to establish or change the legal father anytime before the child turns 18.

To start, file a Complaint to Determine Paternity with your county's Domestic Relations Section. The child and any potential fathers in the case will take DNA tests, and a judge will announce the biological father in a hearing. Then each party will make their case for or against changing the legal father.

A man proven not to be the biological father can remain the legal father if he took on the role knowing the child's paternity was uncertain. However, this does not detract from the biological father's relation to the child.

A legal father has financial responsibility for his child, as does the mother. If the parents are not in a relationship, one must pay child support. A child can also collect inheritance and military or social benefits based on their legal father.

If the court overturns a legal father, he no longer has to financially support the child. However, he's unlikely to be reimbursed for child support paid. He can attempt to recoup the funds by filing a civil complaint against the mother in magisterial court.

History of crime, violence or substance abuse

A history of crime, violence or substance abuse, whether alleged or proven, can negatively impact a parent's case for custody.

Parents must inform the court if they have such a history when filing for custody, though issues often come to light during court proceedings or custody evaluations. A guardian ad litem, Child Protective Services or law enforcement may need to investigate.

Judges weigh these issues when deciding final orders, and they rarely approve settlements in cases with such circumstances. In addition, parents whose cases involve recent domestic violence incidents (in the past 24 months) or active Protection from Abuse Orders are ineligible for court mediation, and they can't discuss settlement at conciliation.

A parent can improve their chances of getting custody by showing improved behavior. In some cases, a lawyer may suggest petitioning for criminal record expungement, which essentially erases any arrests or convictions.

Other actions that can help include enrolling in a rehabilitation program and calling witnesses at trial who can testify about the parent's progress, such as parole officers, counselors or sponsors.

If a parent with an adverse history receives custody, it's often under the condition of supervision (explained below) or participation in therapy or random drug testing.

If a parent makes false accusations, the court may rule against them or order them to pay the accused parent's legal fees. Furthermore, lying under oath (called perjury) can result in criminal conviction.

Protection from domestic violence

The court wants to ensure your safety.

If you're the victim of domestic violence, you can request address confidentiality. You can attend conciliation separate from the other parent, as well as other alternative methods of dispute resolution. You'll be excused from mediation orientation, plus the court may order supervised exchanges to protect you when you transfer the child (more information below).

In addition, there are many resources available to survivors of domestic violence.

Supervised partial custody and exchanges

When the court orders supervised custodial time for a parent, a neutral party must be present during all of their visits with the child. This is usually due to issues in the parent–child relationship, such as:

The judge either designates a supervisor or lets parents agree on someone, who might be a professional, a friend or a family member.

When the court orders supervised exchanges, parents have to hand off the child in a public or monitored place. This may be necessary when parents have had a violent or combative relationship.

For both types of supervision, the final order specifies details like when and where. The judge may require the family to use a professional supervision center.

Parental alienation

Parental alienation occurs when one parent attempts to harm the relationship between their child and the other parent through lies and manipulation.

A custody evaluation is often necessary to identify this behavior. If the evaluator finds alienation, they might recommend that the alienated parent receive the majority of custody time (perhaps increasing gradually). They may also recommend that the parent and child attend reunification therapy.

Military service

Pennsylvania law says a parent's military service cannot hurt their case for custody. In addition, the court cannot issue or modify a custody order while a parent is deployed.

Prior to deployment, the parent may request a temporary order to assign their parenting time to a family member while they're away. They must provide a proposed custody schedule. The regular schedule resumes upon the parent's return.


Pennsylvania defines a relocation as a change in the child's residence that will impair a parent's ability to see the child.

If you plan to relocate, you must notify the other parent at least 60 days prior to the move. You may give notice 10 days prior if you weren't aware of the move 60 days in advance.

Send a notice via certified mail with a return receipt requested. Include the following information:

  • Expected date of relocation
  • Reason for relocation
  • Your new address
  • Names and ages of people who will live there
  • Your new home phone number
  • Name of child's new school and district
  • Proposed custody schedule
  • Counter affidavit the other parent can use to object to the relocation (See section 5337, (d)(1) of the Pennsylvania Code for the correct format.)
  • Notice that the other parent has 30 days to contest the move

If the other parent files an objection, the court holds a hearing to determine whether to allow the move. The judge considers how the move could affect parent–child relationships, why it's necessary and whether it would benefit the child.

Foreign languages

All official court business is conducted in English. Pennsylvania courts provide free interpreters. To request one, contact the language access coordinator in your county.

Interpreters are available for American Sign Language, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese and more.

Grandparent or third-party custody

Grandparents or great-grandparents may file a Complaint for Custody if at least one of the following is true:

  • The child lived in their home for at least 12 consecutive months, and a parent took the child from the home within the past six months.
  • The court determines the child to be their dependent.
  • The child's parents are divorced or have been separated for at least six months.
  • The child is at risk due to a parent's abuse, neglect or substance abuse.

In addition, anyone acting in a parental role (in loco parentis, in legal terminology) may file a Complaint for Custody.

If the child is part of an active custody case, the people mentioned above can instead file a Petition to Intervene. This is most common when a parent has substance abuse issues.

Convincing the court to grant custody to a nonparent isn't easy. The court always prioritizes the child's best interests, and it seeks to maintain or strengthen parent–child relationships when possible. Due to this, partial physical custody is most common for nonparents.

Addressing special circumstances in your parenting plan

Your parenting plan should be unique to your family and reflect your specific needs.

If a lawyer is writing your plan, it's important you share with them any circumstances the plan should address.

If you're writing your own plan, you have the flexibility to include what you want. But it must follow a format the judge will understand and use language that leaves no room for interpretation.

The Custody X Change parenting plan template walks you through common provisions, while letting you enter as many custom provisions as you want.

It's a sure way to get a plan that's both up to court standards and tailored to your family.

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