Child Custody 101 – Some Key Factors in Determining Custody in Pennsylvania

By Susan Levy Eisenberg

If you’re considering divorce, one of the most daunting and scary anticipated changes can be child custody – how often you will see your children and what role you will play in their lives as a major decision maker.

The process of determining child custody may feel uncertain and confusing, but working with a reputable family lawyer to walk you through it is key.

The two types of custody: legal and physical

In Pennsylvania, there are two basic types of custody: legal custody and physical custody.

  • Legal custody refers to the parental rights to make important decisions relating to health, education and welfare.
  • Physical custody is the determination of whom the child lives with and the right to care for the child’s everyday needs.

Legal custody is usually shared between the two parents. Physical custody depends on the specific circumstances of each case and is based on the “best interests” of the children.  There are certain circumstances, and these are very fact specific, where one party can have more custodial time or even supervised custodial time.

Who determines child custody?

The best scenario for the children are when parents work with their lawyers outside of the courtroom to come to an agreement regarding custody. Sample parenting agreements and custody calendar templates can help with visualizing a plan. If the parties reach mutual understanding, they can sign an agreement and send it to the judge, without requiring an appearance in court.

When parents or parties cannot come to an agreement regarding custody, it will be left to a judge to ultimately decide. The judge will make a custody determination that is in the best interest of the children, which includes consideration of 16 custody factors.

Weighing these factors is a complicated process which often requires a custody evaluation. Evaluations can be done either through the Bucks County court’s CCES process or by a qualified private psychologist. 

Court system custody evaluations

The Bucks County Court may use the Court Conciliation and Evaluation Service, or CCES, to conduct custody evaluations. The person doing the evaluation will conduct interviews with the parents and children and other “collateral parties” such as a new parental partner, or others who have a close relationship with the child.

Evaluations involve several meetings and may take months to complete. The evaluation report is sent directly to the judge with the therapist’s recommendations. The Court and the lawyers receive copies but in the case of CCES, not the parties.  The parties can come to an agreement after the evaluation or may still require a full hearing and the Judge will make the final determination on the custody schedule.

Private custody evaluations

In some cases, a private evaluation is ideal. These evaluations may take longer and cost more, but in the long run, they usually include a broader and more in-depth look at the best interest of the child and can include psychological testing and home studies.

Private evaluators are mental health professionals, and they will be called to testify at a trial (unlike in CCES) if the parents cannot come to an agreement after reviewing the recommendations.

Because private evaluations are more complex and a different process than CCES evaluations, it’s best to consult a lawyer about your specific concerns and circumstances.

Unusual circumstances

To recap, shared legal custody is the norm in Pennsylvania except in extreme circumstances. Shared physical custody is also the norm with exceptions in certain circumstances – for example, if the parents live far away from each other or the party has early/late work hours. Then primary physical custody may be awarded to one parent. Mandated supervised visits are rare and are usually ordered by the court if one parent has mental health, abuse or addiction issues.

Custody is always modifiable, very fact sensitive, and depends on circumstances specific and unique to the family. It’s always a good idea to talk about your questions with a family law professional, and have them guide you through the custody process.

Susan Levy Eisenberg, Esquire, has been practicing family law in Bucks and Montgomery Counties for over three decades. Her extensive knowledge and experience negotiating custody conflicts have earned her a reputation as a compassionate and fair-handed counsel. Ms. Eisenberg and her staff are ready to listen and guide clients to an outcome that best suits the child’s needs.