CUSTODY law in today's Pennsylvania family courts

Pennsylvania's child custody laws were overhauled in 2010. Act 1112 changed the way family courts address custody, relocation, grandparents' rights, the rights of third parties, and other issues.

The law delineates between physical custody (where the child lives) and legal custody (who makes decisions about the child). It no longer recognizes the term "visitation," a concept now encompassed within the term supervised physical custody. Under current law, the following combinations of custody awards are possible:

  • Shared physical custody
  • Primary physical custody
  • Sole physical custody
  • Supervised physical custody
  • Shared legal custody
  • Sole legal custody

When it comes to custody and visitation by a third party (such as a grandparent or great-grandparent), the new law specifically defines who has standing to bring a case to court. (See our grandparents' rights page.)

Required Factors For Determining A Child's Best Interests

Section 5328 of the Act sets forth a comprehensive list of factors that the court must consider when determining the best interests of the child for the purposes of granting child custody, including:

  • The need for stability and continuity in the child's education, family life, and community life
  • Assuring access to siblings and extended family
  • Safety of the child and any history of drug or alcohol abuse

For a more complete list, please see Factors in Deciding Child Custody.

parent Relocation

The Act defines relocation as "a change ... which significantly impairs the ability of a non-relocating party to exercise custody rights," though it does not define what would be a significant impairment. The court must consider how the move enhances the quality of life for the child, not merely how it benefits the parent seeking to move.

Judicial Documentation

Judges must provide an explanation of child custody decisions. The court must state the factors it considered when entering a final order, either in open court or in a written opinion. Further, the court must weigh safety considerations to protect the child and an abused spouse (if any) from ongoing risk to harm.

Gender Neutrality

The courts are prohibited from assuming that custody should be awarded to one parent or the other based solely on gender. Contempt citations for willful violations of custody orders must also be gender neutral.

Criminal Convictions

Section 5329 outlines a list of criminal convictions that the court must consider when determining child custody. The expanded list of offenses extends to the parties seeking custody as well as members of their households (a boyfriend or girlfriend, for example). Before custody can be granted, the court must determine that the party is not a threat to the child.

The list of convictions includes:

  • DUI
  • Sex offenses, including sexual assault, prostitution, providing pornography to minors, or luring a child
  • Drug crimes, including drug possession
  • Endangering the welfare of a minor
  • Murder or aggravated assault
  • Terroristic threats or stalking
  • Kidnapping, unlawful restraint or false imprisonment

Other criminal convictions can be considered if, for example, the child was involved or could have been harmed. A Protection from Abuse Order is not a criminal conviction but it will be considered as one of the custody factors affecting the safety of the child.

Get Answers AbouT PEnnsylvania child custody law

An experienced child custody attorney at the law office of Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC, can answer your questions and provide legal guidance if you are involved in a child custody case. Contact our lawyers online or call 717-827-4074. We have offices in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, serving communities in Dauphin County, Cumberland County, York County, Northumberland County and Franklin County. We offer daytime, evening and weekend appointments.