Regardless of the situation, ending a relationship is never an easy thing to do. This is especially true for couples going through divorce and even more so for those who share children as part of their relationship. For parents and children alike, child custody battles in court are often the hardest situations to deal with – they can frustrating and emotionally taxing. When it comes to child custody issues in the state of Pennsylvania, the court system always attempts to make decisions that are in the best interests of the child or children involved, regardless of parents’ desires or requests.
How Child Custody Agreements are Reached in Pennsylvania
When parents are entering into a custody case, the judge first recommends that the parents attempt to come up with an agreeable custody arrangement on their own. Family courts believe that equal involvement from both parents is key to a stable upbringing for the child involved, and most often when parents can create and agree upon their own arrangement, it is more likely that both parents continue to be involved in the child’s life in a major way.
Should parents struggle to come up with their own arrangement, their next step is to try and come to an agreement with the help of a mediator. During mediation, a neutral third party helps the couple work out their issues with one another and also aid them in coming to an agreement regarding the custody of their the child. In some cases, having someone involved who is unbiased can help parents move in a positive direction and toward an agreement.
Finally, should parents be unable to create their own agreement, it is up to the court system to determine the child custody arrangement for them. During this process, the judge takes a look at a number of different factors about the parents including the relationship they have with the child, their living situations, their income and earning capacity, and a number of other things to make his or her determination. Above all else, the judge must make a decision within the best interests of the child.
Judges have a number of custody options to choose from and need to create an arrangement that works in the best interests of the child. Since keeping both parents involved is a top priority whenever possible, one option the judge can choose from is joint custody. Joint custody is comprised of two portions – joint legal custody and joint physical custody. Joint legal custody is the parents’ equal right and responsibility to make important decisions about the child’s upbringing including education, medical needs, religion, and social upbringing.
Joint physical custody refers to the amount of time both parents have the child living with them, and under this type of agreement both parents receive a significant amount of time. Besides a joint custody agreement, judges may also opt for a sole custody agreement. In these situations, one parent has the child living with him or her the majority of the time, and the other parent receives some form of visitation, which can range greatly from overnight and weekend visitations to more extreme cases where the parent only has a few hours of supervised visitation.
Determining the Best Interests of the Child in Pennsylvania
When coming to a decision about a child custody arrangement, the court is instructed to evaluate each parent for his or her ability to nurture the child, parenting skills, and the level of cooperation that both parents have with one another. An important aspect of the best interests of the child standard is that the child is provided stability, so the judge often takes into consideration what the child’s current living situation is. Additionally, the court looks at the relationship the child has with any siblings and makes a decision that causes the least amount of disruption.
Judges also take a look at how different custody arrangement will affect other positive relationships in the child’s life, such as extended family members or close family friends. Practical considerations are also made including how close the parents plan to live near one another and how the child will be transported between residences. The level of conflict between the parents also plays a major role in the decision making – should the parents have a high level of conflict, the court is much less likely to grant a joint custody arrangement.
Additional Factors Considered in Pennsylvania
In addition to the considerations mentioned above, the court also makes a number of other considerations including, but not limited to, the following:
- Relationship with the Child: An important factor that the judge considers is if either or both parents have a history of supporting a positive and living relationship between the child and the other parent. A parent more likely to turn the child against the other parent is not favored in the case, and the parent who does support and encourage a relationship has more of an advantage.
- Mental Health and Abuse: Should one parent have an abusive history either with the child, the other parent, or another household member the judge needs to evaluate the likelihood that this behavior will continue should the parent be granted any level of custody or visitation. This same consideration is given to any parent with a history of alcohol or drug abuse. In these cases, it is likely that the parent without the abuse or substance issues is favored.
Custody and Relocation in Pennsylvania
In situations where one parent has sole custody and the other parent only has visitation, the issue of relocation becomes a major problem. While parents with custody may want to relocate for a number of reasons, it is very likely that their moving with the child will have a direct effect on the other parent’s ability to see the child and fulfill his or her visitation rights. Unsurprisingly, parents are typically unable to settle this type of dispute outside of court, so the judge needs to make the final consideration as to whether or not the relocation is permissible.
The court looks at a number of different factors when it comes to making this type of decision, and as always it needs to determine whether or not the relocation is in the best interests of the child. Additionally, the burden of proving that the relocation is needed and beneficial falls on the parent making the request, and that parent needs to convince the judge beyond any doubt that the relocation is necessary. Some of the factors the judge considers include:
- Reason for relocation
- Potential benefits to child/parent due to relocation
- How relocation will affect the current child custody arrangement (i.e. visitation)
- Other parent’s reason for protesting the relocation
- Relationship between the child and both parents