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Custody- Third Party Standing in PA

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The Best Interests of the Child can trump the Court's consideration of a parent's natural right to custody

By Attorney Jeffrey B. Engle, Family Law Division Leader, Harrisburg, PA

Natural parents in custody disputes are favored over third parties, and anyone not a natural parent must be treated as a third party in a custody dispute. Although the best interest of the child remains of paramount concern, the parent has a prima facie right to custody that will be forfeited only if convincing reasons appear that the child's best interest will be served by an award to the third party. 

What if family is the third party?

Where the custody dispute is between a biological parent and a third party, such as a sibling, aunt, uncle or other relative, the burden of proof is not evenly balanced.  In such instances, the parents have a prima facie right to custody, which will be forfeited only if convincing reasons' appear that the child's best interest will be served by an award to the third party. Thus, even before the proceedings start, the evidentiary scale is tipped, and tipped hard, to the biological parents' side, and the nonparent bears both the burden of persuasion and the burden of production concerning evidence.

In a dispute between a parent and a third party, including a relative such as a grandparent, aunt, uncle, sibling, or cousin, as the amount of time requested moves the visit further from a visit and closer to custody, the reasons offered in support of the request must become correspondingly more convincing.  Although biological parents have a prima facie right to custody, biological parenthood is not the only source of such a right.  Parenthood alone is thus insufficient to defeat a custody claim raised by a nonparent. The principle of deference to biological parents in a third party nonparent's child custody challenge does not preclude an award of custody to the nonparent; rather, it simply instructs the hearing judge that the nonparent bears the burden of production and persuasion and that the nonparent's burden is heavy.  While the Commonwealth places great importance on biological ties, it does not do so to the extent that the biological parent's right to custody will trump the child's best interests.

If you have questions about a custody issue that involves a child that is your relative, contact the experienced team at Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC toll free or email us today.

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