Pittsburgh, PA Custody Attorney
We represent clients in Pittsburgh custody cases including: conciliations, hearings, contempt, relocation, and trials. If you need help getting custody of your child, modifying an existing custody Order, or handling relocation with your child, we welcome the opportunity to assist you. Offering Counsel on Father's Rights, Mother's Rights and Grandparent's Rights.
Pittsburgh Child Custody
Our experienced Pittsburgh child custody attorneys can handle any aspect of your custody case. Whether you need to begin an entirely new custody action or require representation for an existing matter, we can help you. We have guided countless fathers and mothers seeking to establish new custody or increase their amount of custodial time.
We also offer assistance if you have concerns or reservations about the other parent's custodial time arising from their absence from the child's life, or because of substance abuse, neglect, or criminal history.
Custody may be part of the divorce process, or it could involve unmarried parents seeking to establish, change, or keep current living arrangements in place.
In Pennsylvania, there are two types of child custody: legal custody and physical custody.
Legal custody involves the ability of each parent to make important decisions in their child’s life. Legal custody spans issues related to: education, medical care, extracurricular activities, and religion. Legal custody is either sole or shared.
Physical custody simply involves with whom the child physically resides or is with at a certain time.
Physical custody is further categorized as follows:
- Primary Physical Custody
- Partial Physical Custody
- Shared Physical Custody
- Sole Physical Custody
- Supervised Physical Custody
The terms are applied depending on the amount of time spent with each parent including overnight time.
What had been called "visitation" is now called supervised physical custody. The term "joint custody" is no longer used.
Filing for Primary or Partial Custody
Formal custody proceedings may be initiated by either biological parent, as well as other family members including grandparents and great grandparents in certain circumstances.
Briefly, in Allegheny County, the process involves completing a Custody Complaint, a document about Criminal History and an information sheet.
These documents are brought to the Generations Office at the Family Division and the person filling will be given an education date and mediation date. (Education only requires attending once, and mediation may be waived in certain circumstances).
After these dates are given, the documents need to be taken to the Department of Court Records where they are filed and filing fees are paid.
A basic overview is that:
- Primary Custody is asking for the majority of the time;
- Shared Custody can be half of the time; and
- Partial Custody can be anywhere from a small amount of time, every other weekend, up to shared time.
- There are lots of options for someone looking to establish time with their kids.
If there is already an existing Custody Order, it may be changed by filing a Petition for Custody Modification.
In Allegheny County, this is a similar process to filing for custody in terms of the number of documents to be prepared, taken to Generations at Family Court and then filed at the Department of Court Records. This can be done any time one parent believes an existing schedule needs to be changed.
Responding to a Custody Complaint
When a custody action is brought against you can proceed as the defendant in the case or you may file your own counter-complaint for custody.
What to expect from the process?
Custody proceedings normally begin when one parent files of a Complaint for Custody either on its own or as part of a divorce. Sometimes the first involvement with custody is attached to a Protection from Abuse action.
Once a complaint is filed and served, in Allegheny County, the parties must proceed through the Generations Program. At a minimum, the parents will be required to attend an Educational Seminar (kids too between the ages of six and fifteen) and Mediation (unless a domestic violence waiver is filed).
If there are no preliminary custody motions filed by either party, the first time a lawyer will be involved at court would be at the Generations Conciliation.
If the parties do not agree on a custody schedule, the matter may proceed through various additional steps which could include: an additional conciliation, psychological evaluations, a partial custody hearing, one or more Judicial conciliations, or a custody trial before the matter is resolved.
The link to the Allegheny County Custody Case Flow Chart provides an overview of the various custody procedures, which may apply to your matter.
Best Interest of the Child
In Pennsylvania, the standard for reviewing child custody petitions or modifications has been "the best interest of the child." When dealing with custody issues, the most important concern is the welfare of the child involved. Keep in mind that generally, the child will benefit from having both parents involved in their lives. In light of this, we always seek to resolve matters in the most reasonable way possible.
Accordingly, we strive to conduct meaningful settlement discussions and negotiation with the opposing party and their counsel. At the same time, if your matter requires that we take a tough stance on a certain issue, or if we are forced to litigate some of your claims, we will fight hard for your best interests, while keeping the big picture in mind.
We want to obtain the most favorable results for you and your children, and that often means compromising in order to resolve things more quickly, thereby keeping your costs down and reducing the amount of stress your family will have to endure. Unfortunately, when the parents do not get along, they are often unable to think clearly about what is really best for the children.
Regardless of what you may personally feel, the court will almost always rule that it is in a child's best interest to have both parents involved in their upbringing. In most cases, the biological parents of a child will have to share in the lives of their children until the child reaches the age of majority or graduates from secondary school. In addition, if the child is disabled the support obligation may continue, sometimes indefinitely.
We see plenty of situations where divorcing parents or unmarried parents are civil with each other and believe in getting along for the well-being of their children. Often these parents are able to agree on when each person will have time with the kids. In many cases, separated parents have been following an informal custody schedule for months, or even years. In these types of cases, we can assist with drafting a Custody Consent Order that incorporates the wishes of each party and becomes a legal document formalizing the custody arrangement (after the filing of a Custody Complaint, execution of the Order by the parties, and having signed by a Judge). This can help eliminate any issues in the future and can be fast and inexpensive.
Litigation vs. Settlement
Litigation for custody is not always needed if the parents can agree upon a custody schedule without requiring court intervention. However, it is often difficult to decide what days and times each parent will have custody and how vacation and holiday custody will be divided. Accordingly, often the parties will need to proceed through the various processes applicable in the county where they reside until a determination is reached with regard to the custody issues. As noted above, in Pennsylvania, the court will consider "the best interest of the child" or children when dealing with custody litigation.
That being said, it should be noted that any time you proceed with litigation you're asking a third-party to make important decisions about when you see your child and the conditions under which such time is enjoyed.
A wise judge once explained this process essentially by advising the litigants that: the Court did not know either parent, their families, backgrounds or the child, yet because the parties could not agree how to best raise their child, it was the task of the Court to make a decision that would affect the lives of several people. This decision was going to be made after each parent presented themselves and parenting abilities in the light most favorable to them, while attempting to illustrate examples of why the other party was not an equally good parent. After hearing from both sides over the course of many hours or days, the Court was then burdened with having to decide the circumstances of how the litigants would enjoy time with their child, a situation where generally neither party would be entirely pleased with the outcome, since in most cases, there has to be some level of compromise.
Bottom line, agreeing to custodial issues can be very difficult. You just need to decide if you prefer to have a say in the outcome or if you prefer leaving the final decision to a judge/master who does not know you or child and is simply trying to do the best they can when forced to decide how a child will enjoy time with each parent.
High Conflict Cases
There are some matters that have a high level of conflict between the parties. Often custody cases which follow a PFA, infidelity, domestic violence, substance abuse or other emotional circumstances between the parents will require special attention. The good news is, the court has many resources at its disposal.
Tools for High Conflict Cases
- Co-Parenting Counseling may be ordered where the parents cannot communicate effectively or appropriately.
- The Our Family Wizard website and app can be used for communication when regular email, texts or calls are not working.
- Some Judges will assign reading to the litigants and/or the children.
- Reunification Counseling can be ordered where one parent has been absent for a period of time.
- Regular counseling for the children is also often used in many circumstances where they are feeling the conflict between the parents, or where they are having trouble adjusting to living in two households.
- A Guardian Ad Litem (or Best Interest Attorney) may be appointed to represent the children in situations where one or both parents have certain issues.
- The Impact Program (drug and alcohol screening) may be used when there are questions of substance abuse.
- There are also additional substance abuse and alcohol programs and evaluators which may be used.
- Mental health evaluations can be ordered where deemed appropriate.
- Psychological Evaluations may also be requested or ordered.
On March 1, 2019, Pennsylvania saw the return of Parent Coordinators for high-conflict cases. There are specific requirements for who may be a parent coordinator and what powers they have.
- Parent coordinators are able to issue recommendations to the court, but only a Judge can make a final decision.
- Parent coordinators are intended to provide the court with another tool in cases where parents cannot agree about certain issues.
- Parent Coordinators may be used to assist Judges in disputed matters including: custody exchanges, school issues, extracurricular activities, childcare and exchange of information.
Bottom line, regardless of the situation, there are plenty of tools which can help both parents and children, even in the most hotly contested cases.
You should consider if your expectations of a future custody arrangement are realistic in terms of the amount of time enjoyed by each parent. Additionally, consideration should be given to whether such expectations are manageable with regard to the distances from the parent’s homes to one another and the child's school or daycare. Consideration must be given to the start and end time of education and balanced against the work schedules of either parent. When crafting your desired custody schedule it is important to request custodial time that is both feasible for you to exercise and that is not overly burdensome to the child or other parent.
Status Quo is a Latin phrase, which essentially means "the existing state of affairs" and is used in describing the current custody arrangement. The "status quo" is important in custody matters since the existing situation is not often disturbed if the child is thriving in the present circumstances. However, modifications to custody are always permissible, and we will zealously advocate for you in such instances where a recent separation or change in circumstances warrant addressing or revisiting the custody situation.
Changes to Pennsylvania Law
On November 23, 2010, the governor signed Act 112 of 2010 into Law. The Act essentially rewrote Child Custody law in Pennsylvania. The law declared “it is public policy of this Commonwealth, when in the best interest of the child, to assure a reasonable and continuing contact of the child with both parents after a separation or dissolution of the marriage and the sharing of the rights and responsibilities of child rearing by both parents and continuing contact of the child or children with grandparents when a parent is deceased, divorced or separated."
The Act, which took effect on January 24, 2011, made substantial changes to how custody is handled in PA. The biggest change is that custody actions are now gender neutral, meaning that it is no longer assumed that a child should spend more time with the mother or father. Matters are reviewed on a case by case basis and the presumption is often that custody should be shared equally if possible.
Additional Changes to Pennsylvania Law
As part of the sweeping changes to Pennsylvania Custody law, several key aspects of the child custody process were affected. The law specifically codified the holdings of various case law, which had been relied on exclusively in the past. Now, there are sixteen factors the court uses to determine what is in the "best interest" of a child. Additionally, the issue of relocation underwent wholesale changes and utilizes specific forms and procedures whenever a move is desired. Further, the issue of "standing" in custody matters changed. Other changes involved the use of parenting plans and child guardians. Also noteworthy was the ability for the starting custody proceedings while both parents reside in the same residence.
Criminal Record/Abuse History Verification
Any new custody complaint or modification requires the submission of the ”Criminal Record/Abuse History Verification" to the court at the time of filing. In October 2013, this form replaced the "Affidavit of my Household" first listed under the 2011 law. These forms like their predecessors must be current as of the past 30 days and are often resubmitted each time the parties are at court for a custody conciliation or hearing.
When issuing a decision in a contested custody case, case law dictates that the trier of fact must specifically consider each of the above factors in the final decision. Likewise, when presenting a case it is important to address each and every single factor, however briefly in argument to the court. That being said, the factors are not weighted equally. Each case is unique and it is up to those involved to present their case in the light most favorable to them, while specifically offering reasoned support for asking the trier of fact to adopt their position.
Factors when awarding custody.
Pa.C.S. 23 §5328 (a) lists the sixteen factors considered by a court in awarding custody.
- Which party is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between the child and another party.
- The present and past abuse committed by a party or member of the party's household, whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child or an abused party and which party can better provide adequate physical safeguards and supervision of the child.
- The parental duties performed by each party on behalf of the child.
- The need for stability and continuity in the child's education, family life and community life.
- The availability of extended family.
- The child's sibling relationships.
- The well-reasoned preference of the child, based on the child's maturity and judgment.
- The attempts of a parent to turn the child against the other parent, (except in cases of domestic violence where reasonable safety measures are necessary to protect the child from harm).
- Which party is more likely to maintain a loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship with the child adequate for the child's emotional needs.
- Which party is more likely to attend to the daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational and special needs of the child.
- The proximity of the residences of the parties.
- Each party's availability to care for the child or ability to make appropriate child-care arrangements.
- The level of conflict between the parties and the willingness and ability of the parties to cooperate with one another. (A party's effort to protect a child from abuse by another party is not evidence of unwillingness or inability to cooperate with that party).
- The history of drug or alcohol abuse of a party or member of a party's household.
- The mental and physical condition of a party or member of a party's household.
- Any other relevant factor.
Planning a Relocation?
If you are planning to move or relocate with your minor children there are specific procedures, which must be followed to avoid being ordered by the court to return. Call us before you move to make sure you comply with the law and to understand the individual factors that will be used by the court in evaluating your requested custody relocation.
Relocation without your consent?
If the other parent of your child is planning to relocate and it will impact your custodial time and you do not agree, we can explain how to handle the situation. This includes responding to a proposed relocation and explaining exactly what will be required by the court in determining whether any proposed move is denied or granted.
If the parent moves out-of-state with your child without notice or obtaining your consent, we can have your child returned to Pennsylvania. If the parent moves outside of the local area we can have the child returned as well.
If there is no existing custody order for your child, and the other parent refuses to return the child to you or relocates without your consent, we can petition the court for emergency relief.
We can assist you with formally objecting to any proposed move and get you a hearing in front of a judge.
Any parent wishing to relocate must follow the procedures set forth at 23 P.a. C.S. Section 5337. These include providing advance notice to the other parent via certified mail and providing specific documents including: (1) a warning about not responding and (2) a form which may be used if they object to the proposed move. If there is no agreement a hearing will be scheduled prior to the proposed move. If the move occurs without following the correct procedure, the parent who moved can be ordered to return the children to the prior jurisdiction until a full hearing can be held. At a relocation hearing, the court will consider a list of 10 factors when reviewing the move. Section 5337 (h) sets forth the specific relocation factors.
Accordingly, a parent who wants to move should follow the specific steps of the relocation law. If there is no existing custody order, there may be more leeway, but it is always best to err on the side of caution. Also, the actual distance involved in the move may affect whether the case is considered a candidate for relocation, but generally any move that may impact the non-moving party falls under this category. Some moves within the same county are significant as they could make custody exchanges or travel to school or activities much more difficult. Bottom line, if you are contemplating moving and your child enjoys time with both parents and spends time between two households, you should consult with an attorney in your jurisdiction for guidance on how to best proceed.
- The nature, quality, extent of involvement and duration of the child's relationship with the party proposing to relocate and with the non relocating party, siblings and other significant persons in the child's life.
- The age, developmental stage, needs of the child and the likely impact the relocation will have on the child's physical, educational and emotional development, taking into consideration any special needs of the child.
- The feasibility of preserving the relationship between the non relocating party and the child through suitable custody arrangements, considering the logistics and financial circumstances of the parties.
- The child's preference, taking into consideration the age and maturity of the child.
- Whether there is an established pattern of conduct of either party to promote or thwart the relationship of the child and the other party.
- Whether the relocation will enhance the general quality of life for the party seeking the relocation, including, but not limited to, financial or emotional benefit or educational opportunity.
- Whether the relocation will enhance the general quality of life for the child, including, but not limited to, financial or emotional benefit or educational opportunity.
- The reasons and motivation of each party for seeking or opposing the relocation.
- The present and past abuse committed by a party or member of the party's household and whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child or an abused party.
- Any other factor affecting the best interest of the child.
Standing for Custody and Grandparent Custody In PA
23 Pa.C.S. Chapter 53 governs child custody in Pennsylvania. For Grandparent's rights, the governing law is set forth in Sections 5324 and 5325.
Section 5324 lists persons who may have standing (the requisite legal foundation) for filing for custody, including, in some cases, grandparents. This is further detailed in Section 5325 which lays out the specific instances where grandparents may pursue custody of grandchildren.
Accordingly, there are specific instances where grandparents have standing to pursue custody under PA law. However these situations are fact-specific, narrowly defined and limited in their application.
The PA Supreme Court issued a decision on September 9, 2016, which greatly impacted the issue of grandparent standing.
More changes to Standing for Custody and Grandparent Custody
On May 4, 2018, Senate Bill 844 was signed by the Governor and became effective on July 3, 2018. The law was partially in response to the opioid crisis.
The bill made key changes to existing PA law.
First, "Standing" (the ability to file for custody) was impacted.
The new law amended section 5324 by expanding when an individual may file for Custody if: "The individual has assumed or is willing to assume responsibility for a child, the individual has a sustained, substantial and sincere interest in the welfare of the child; and neither parent has any form of care and control of the child." Certain exceptions apply.
Next, the law amended Section 5325 to allow Grandparents AND Great Grandparents to file for partial physical custody or supervised physical custody in expanded situations.
How we can assist you?
If you need help getting custodial time with your child, we can help. If you currently have a custody Order but it is outdated or no longer working and you need to change it, we can help you. If you have a custody Order but it is not being followed by the other parent we can help. If you have an informal custody arrangement but need a formal court Order we can help.
Contact us for more information or to schedule a consultation
Contact us if you have any questions about child custody, or to schedule a free consultation. We proudly serve clients in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Allegheny County throughout Western Pennsylvania.