Child Custody FAQ's

Common custody terms and their meaning in Pennsylvania:

Physical Custody: This is the actual "possession" of the child.

Primary Physical Custody: The person with Primary Physical Custody is the one who has the right to custody of the child the majority of the time.

Sole Physical Custody: The right of one person to have exclusive physical custody of the child.

Joint Physical Custody: This means that more than one person has the right to custody of the child for significant periods of time.

Partial Physical Custody: When one person has a right to custody for less than the majority of the time.

Legal Custody: The right to make important decisions about your child's life. For example, the right to decide where your child will go to school, what doctor your child will see, whether or not your child will receive counseling and from whom or what religion your child will practice.

Sole Legal Custody: One person has the right to make all legal decisions for the child.

Joint Legal Custody: More than one person has the right to make legal decisions for the child.

Supervised Physical Custody: The requirement that visitation with the child must be done in the presence of a third party designated by the court. The third party can be an agency or an individual.

Custody Master: An attorney who is assigned by the court to mediate custody cases.

How does a custody case begin?

A custody case begins when a custody complaint is filed in the Berks County Court of Common Pleas.

What happens after the custody complaint is filed?

In Berks County, all parties to a custody matter are required to attend a class called "Children in the Middle." The purpose of the class is educate the parties on how the custody process is effecting their children and how best to counsel the children during the proceedings. All parties are then scheduled for mediation. The only exception to the mediation requirement is where there has been domestic violence or child abuse between the parties or their children within 24 months of the custody action. Mediation sessions are confidential and facilitated by a court-appointed, trained mediator. The purpose of mediation is for the parties to try to reach a custody agreement prior to going to court. If an agreement is reached during mediation, the mediator will prepare a Memorandum of Understanding which puts into writing the parties' agreement. This document is not legally binding on either party.

What happens if no agreement is reached during mediation?

If no agreement is reached during mediation, a conciliation conference is scheduled in front of a Custody Master. The Custody Master acts as a go-between for the parties to try to encourage a resolution and can also recommend additional mediation, counseling or physical and mental examinations. The Custody Master can also hold a hearing at which time testimony can be taken from the parties and the child/ren at issue. If a written custody agreement is not reached then the Custody Master will file a recommended order.

Why does the Custody Master's recommended order matter?

Once the recommended order is filed, each party will be given notice that they have 20 days to file any exceptions (objections) to the recommended order. If neither party does so, the recommended order will be submitted to the court to be signed by a family law judge at which point it will become the formal custody order.

What if I don't agree with the Custody Master's recommended order?

You will need to file written exceptions (objections) within the required time frame. Once that is done, your case will be scheduled in front of a Berks County Court of Common Pleas judge.

What affect does my prior criminal conviction have on my custody case?

Parties to a custody case are required to fill out a Criminal Record / Abuse History Verification form. The form asks whether you or a household member has been convicted or charged with any of the listed offenses. If the answer is yes, the court will determine whether you pose a risk of harm to your child/ren.

What legal standard does the court use to make custody determinations?

The court uses the "best interest of the child" standard. There are many factors that the court uses to determine the best interest of the child. It's important that you have a knowledgeable attorney to help you present your best case to the judge.

What if I want to move with my child?

This is called relocation. Each party who has custodial rights must consent to the move or the court must approve the relocation. The party who wishes to move must notify any other party with custodial rights in writing no later than 60 days before the move or within 10 days of learning that the relocation will be occurring. The party that is not moving has the right to file an objection to the court and a hearing can be held. However, if no objection is filed then the court can issue an order modifying the custody order to allow for the relocation.

Who can file for custodial rights?

Parents, those acting as a parent (loco parentis) and under certain circumstances, grandparents who are not acting as parents.

What if a custody order is already in place, but I want to change it?

You need to file a Petition for Modification. Just as with the entry of an initial custody order, the standard for modification is the best interest of the child.