Substantial Changes to Pennsylvania Custody Law

Pennsylvania Custody law has been substantially changed. On January 24, 2011, significant modifications to Pennsylvania existing custody law became effective. While the amended Pennsylvania child custody laws maintain the “best interest of the child” standard, it expressly prohibits certain presumptions, including the presumption that primary physical custody should always be awarded to one parent or that primary physical custody should always be awarded to a parent of a particular gender.

It is important to have an understanding of “the basics” of Pennsylvania custody law in order to understand what was modified. There are two types of child custody in Pennsylvania. The first, “legal custody”, involves the right to make “big picture” decisions in the life of the child including medical decisions, educational decisions, or decisions involving religious upbringing. The second, and more commonly understood definition of “custody” is physical custody. Physical custody can be explained as simply as who has the child during what periods of time. Previously, the Pennsylvania custody law spoke in terms of “primary physical custody,” “partial physical custody” and “visitation.” These definitions have been changed. Under the new Pennsylvania Custody Act, a party can be awarded “primary physical custody” meaning that one parent has the child more than half the time; “partial physical custody” meaning that one party has the child less than the majority of the time, or “shared physical custody” meaning that one or both parties has a “substantial” period of time with the children on a regular and ongoing basis. The Court can also award “supervised” partial physical custody to either party commonly done if there is a serious concern for the child’s safety. The concept of “sharing” physical custody of children has been effectively in practice for decades in Pennsylvania but it has been formally been recognized by the recent amendments to the Child Custody Act.

Another substantial modification to prior practice has been an area of relocation. Previously, any relocating party had to petition the Court in order to relocate the child outside the jurisdiction of the Court. However, the new amendments create a fairly complicated procedure whereby with appropriate notice, one parent can relocate and retain custody of the child as long as no objection is received. This new procedure has not been tested through the Court system. Relocation cases have historically been very hotly contested by the non-relocating parent and we anticipate that there will be a number of legal challenges to this statutory revision.

In summary, the amendments to the Child Custody Act in Pennsylvania are significant and the full impact of these changes will be played out over time. It is now more important than ever to have appropriate, experienced legal representation in any interaction with the Court concerning the custody of your children. David E. Auerbach, Esquire and Craig B. Huffman, Esquire are highly skilled and knowledgeable child custody attorneys who can properly advise you and represent you during the emotionally difficult and challenging situations you will face in custody litigation. You can reach them at 610-565-3700.