Articles Posted in Custody

The Odds are Evened Between Parents

The standard for determining child custody is what is in the best interests of the child. However, before Pennsylvania enacted a major change to its’ custody statute, which can be found at 23 PA C.S. A. section 5328, how best interests was determined could vary significantly from one county to another or from one judge to another. The enactment of the Custody Guidelines was a legislative attempt to provide a gender neutral, fact specific, roadmap for custody court judges.

Under the Pennsylvania Child Custody Guidelines there are 15 factors that a court must consider when it is asked to determine the custodial status of a child. (for a discussion on custody status generally see blog post Child Custody 101). Under recent caselaw it is clear that trial courts must evaluate each factor individually, and weigh it in the context of all the facts before ruling on custody.

Understanding the ins and outs of child custody can be overwhelming to one who never had to think about the concept before. Most of us think of our children as “our own,” and that is it. But if separation and divorce become part of a family story the legal and emotional issues raised by custody can be scary and daunting.

Who and what are our children? Are they property? Are they a part of ourselves? Are they separate precious individuals who we take care of temporarily? Are they all of the above? What happens if parents are in conflict over the children? What happens if grandparents get into the picture and want custody? The answers to these questions are not obvious, and may raise intricate legal issues. If child custody becomes contested, the process can become complex.

If a custody case does not settle and ends up in Court, parents may feel like they are in a foreign territory. When entering a foreign land, having a guidebook with some common phrases often is useful to help calm the nerves. Today’s blog is a short introduction to the types of child custody, including important definitions and concepts.

Under the revised Pennsylvania Child Custody Act, which took effect in January 2011, the rules for re-location 23 Pa C.S.A. 5337 are specific. Relocation requires the consent of both parties or judicial approval. The process requires the parent who wants to re-locate to provide written notice by certified mail to the other parent sixty (60) days before he/she intends to re-locate. The definition of “relocate” can mean more than a move out of state. It appears to have expanded to include any residence change that significantly may affect the non-relocating parent’s custodial rights.

The notice provided to the other parent must provide specific information including the new address of the re-locating parent, phone number, persons who will live at the new address, ages of who will be living there, information about the new school, the reason for the re-location and a schedule of visitation. It behooves the moving parent to do as much research into the new location as possible before filing a notice so that the notice is thoughtfully presented.

The other parent then has thirty (30) days within which to respond by counter-affidavit in writing to the notice. He/she can agree or oppose. If a parent opposes, a formal hearing will be held at which each party can present evidence, testimony and experts. If the non-relocating parent does not file a counter-affidavit within 30 days he/she is foreclosed from objecting to the relocation.

When a child lives in one state and a parent files for custody of that child in another state a question of jurisdiction over which state can hear the custody case arises. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that in such situations the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) 23 Pa C.S.A. § 5401 applies.

So, for example, if Father lives in Pennsylvania and Mother lives in Maryland and Father files for custody of the child in Pennsylvania and Mother wants the case to be heard in Maryland, and asks the Pennsylvania court to defer jurisdiction to Maryland, how is the proper forum determined? In cases such as this, Pennsylvania will use the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act or the UCCJEA.

Under the UCCJEA a Pennsylvania court will look to the child’s “home state” to determine jurisdiction. The child’s home state is determined by the place that the child resided for six months consecutively immediately preceding the filing of the custody action. The UCCJEA provides that “the state with the closest connections to, and the most evidence regarding a child should decide a child’s custody.” If the child is very young, or has moved around a lot, and has no home state, then the courts use other factors to determine home state. Among those other factors are significant contacts the Child has with the jurisdiction, such as family contacts, medical contacts, school, etc. The Court also may consider which jurisdiction is more convenient for the child.

Alcohol and/or other substance abuse is a known factor in many domestic relations cases. If one party drinks to excess, or uses drugs it can have an significant impact on the marital relationship and on the children. Tensions build, it can lead to secrecy, alienation, breakdown in communication; there may be episodes of violence, the substance abuse may lead to economic problems if it impacts ability to work or sustain a job, and it causes numerous other problems. Oftentimes, the effects of substance abuse on a relationship take years to manifest because one or both parties may be in denial.

A happy, successful, outwardly stable family can become unstable through the pain of alcoholism. Regardless of what triggers the alcoholism, if this is a factor in your family dynamic, it is important to acknowledge it.

The Pennsylvania Courts take substance abuse very seriously. Because the best interests of the children are primary, Courts carefully will consider evidence of substance abuse in any custody determination. If there is any concern that the health or welfare of a child is endangered by being in the custody a parent who is an alcoholic or substance abuser, primary physical custody could be granted to the other parent , and the substance using parent might be denied physical custody or granted limited supervised partial custody.

In the Best Interests of the Child

When parents work cooperatively in divorce, children will fare better. 1187603_fun_with_bubbles.jpg

In an ideal world divorcing parents would be able to put their hurt, anger, grief, conflict and other emotions aside and put parenting their children first. Children may not need (or be able ) to live in a home with two married parents, but they do need to have the continuing contact, love and involvement of both their parents .