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How Do I Start a Custody Matter in Pennsylvania?

A custody complaint must be filed with the county prothonotary's office where the kids have lived for the past 6 months or more.

I have often responded to client's questions about if they need to file to modify a custody order, ask for a contempt finding, or seek court permission to relocate. However, I've skipped over one essential step in my analysis for prospective clients. That is, how do I get to court in the first place?

How do I file for custody?

One begins a custody action by filing a complaint in custody with the prothonotary's office in the court of common pleas where the child(ren) have resided for 6 months or more. There are some exceptions to this general rule, but most cases this rule will apply.

Who files for custody?

Any party with standing to file for custody. 'Standing' is the legal right to file a custody action and is usually held by natural parents. But can be held by third parties, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and even just a boyfriend or girlfriend of a parent as long as statutory criteria are met.

What goes in the complaint?

There are specific guidelines about what goes in a custody complaint that have been developed by the court. But, essentially, you have to identify the parties (parents and where they live), children (names, ages and dates of birth), where the kids have lived for the past 5 years or since birth and who should have physical custody of the kids. A sample complaint is available at the prothonotary's office in the county courthouse. You may file it pro se(without a lawyer), by filing out a form complaint.

What happens next?

You fill out the complaint or have a lawyer file a typed complaint, pay a filing fee (may be waived by the court if you meet 'indigency guidelines') and serve the complaint on the other party by certified and regular mail. The court will then schedule a custody conciliation conference.

If you have questions about this process of filing for custody, you should speak to competent custody counsel. You may contact Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC.