Pennsylvania Child Custody Trials: What to Expect

If you and the other parent are unable to settle your custody case, you will go to trial.

A trial gives you the opportunity to present arguments and evidence to the judge so they can issue a final custody order.

Note that some procedures may vary by county, judge or case.

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Preparing for trial

Preparing for trial can take months.

If you have an attorney, they'll arrange evidence and get you and your witnesses ready to take the stand.

If you don't have an attorney, use all the custody resources at your disposal.

In the lead-up to trial, avoid behaviors that could harm your case for custody, like bad-mouthing the other parent on social media or preventing them from communicating with the child.

Before your pre-trial conference, you'll have to turn in a statement detailing the evidence you plan to present at trial. Evidence must follow Pennsylvania's evidence laws and may include:

  • A proposed parenting plan (including a custody schedule)
  • Active court orders against the other party
  • Police reports and criminal records
  • Reports from doctors, therapists and evaluators
  • Financial documents
  • Entries from a parenting journal
  • Relevant photos and videos
  • Live witness testimony

Witnesses can be anyone with knowledge relevant to the case. Either parent can call their child to testify as a witness, and if the case had a custody evaluation, either parent (or the judge) may call the evaluator to testify.

Prepare questions to ask your witnesses when they take the stand, as well as the other parent and their witnesses. Focus on information they can provide to corroborate your claims.

Also, practice stating the main points you'll present during your testimony.

Scheduling and timing

Trial begins 30 days after the pre-trial conference, unless the court calendar doesn't allow this or a party requests more time.

Most custody trials last only a day. Pennsylvania law advises that longer cases should conclude within a certain time frame: 45 days if sessions take place on nonconsecutive dates and 90 days if sessions occur on back-to-back dates.

Each day of trial can last from 30 minutes to four hours, depending on the court's calendar and the issues at hand.

People at a trial

Parents, with their lawyers, sit before the judge at separate tables. Other people in attendance include a bailiff, a court reporter, a prothonotary and witnesses. Your trial could also have a guardian ad litem, a child's attorney and an interpreter present.

Custody trials do not have juries.

You may invite adults to support you, but lawyers advise against bringing romantic partners. Children cannot attend trial, so arrange child care in advance. (Montgomery and Allegheny counties offer free on-site child care.)


Lawyers make statements to the court, talk to the judge, question witnesses (including both parents) and present evidence on behalf of their clients. Parents who don't have lawyers must do all this on their own.

Parents and their witnesses each take an oath to tell the truth before they testify.

The parent who filed the case, called the plaintiff, presents their side first, beginning with an optional opening statement. Then, the plaintiff answers questions from their attorney; if they don't have one, they give their testimony independently, like a short speech.

Next, the plaintiff questions their witnesses (direct examination) and presents evidence to support the witnesses' claims.

Afterward, the defendant has the chance to question the same witnesses through cross-examination. They try to gain information that pokes holes in the plaintiff's arguments or benefits their own.

Some judges then allow the plaintiff to question the witnesses again (re-cross examination).

Once the plaintiff rests their case, the defendant takes the floor. They repeat the same process as above, starting with the optional opening statement.

If the case involves a guardian ad litem or child's attorney, these professionals can also question the parents and witnesses, plus present evidence on the child's behalf.

The child gives private testimony to the judge on a nontrial day, unless both parents agree it would harm the child.

The judge typically announces their decision on the last day of trial. If they call a recess instead, they must issue a decision within 15 days of the trial. They'll call the parties back to court for the announcement. In the meantime, parents follow the temporary orders in their case.

Once the judge signs off, their written decision is known as a final order.

Your options for changing a final order include filing an appeal (following Children's Fast Track appeal rules) within 30 days of its issuance or petitioning for modification.


  • Wear business casual dress (no t-shirts, sandals, flip flops or ripped clothing).
  • Arrive early to allow yourself time to check in and find the courtroom.
  • Treat everyone with respect, including court employees and the other parent.
  • Only speak when asked to.
  • Speak clearly, and don't rush.
  • Don't start arguments with the other parent; court is not the place to vent frustrations.
  • Don't let personal issues interfere with what's best for your child.
  • Avoid getting overly emotional, especially when the judge announces their decision.

Staying organized

Going to trial over child custody requires serious organization.

You'll need to present evidence, which could range from messages with the other parent to a calendar showing when you care for your child. You should also present a proposed parenting plan and schedule to the court.

The Custody X Change app lets you create and manage all of these elements in one place.

With parent-to-parent messaging, personalized custody calendars, a parenting plan template and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared not only for trial but for every step of your case.

Take advantage of our technology to get what's best for your child.

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