In any divorce case involving minors or dependent children, child custody will be a significant issue. If you are lucky enough to have an uncontested divorce where you and your spouse can agree to the terms of a child custody arrangement, your child custody decision may be as easy as a judge signing off on your agreement. If, however, you and your spouse argue about the terms of childcare and support, the decision will rest with the judge.
Out-of-Court Custody Agreements
The easiest, fastest, and least disruptive way to come to a child custody decision is to negotiate an agreement with your spouse before going to court. You can try to achieve this during informal negotiations with your spouse, with or without the presence of a neutral third-party mediator. Retain an attorney to represent you during these negotiations if desired. Though having a lawyer present isn’t mandatory, having someone by your side to with the knowledge of PA law will be an incredible asset – even in non-contentious divorces.
Alternative dispute resolution has the goal of coming up with a voluntary settlement on which both spouses agree. If you want to try to work out an agreement this way, prepare to resolve issues such as:
- Who will have primary custody, or if there will be joint custody.
- Each parent’s childcare responsibilities.
- A visitation schedule, if applicable.
- Who the child will be with on holidays and vacations.
- Where each parent may take the child.
- Who will have the right to make major decisions for the child, such as about religion, education, and health care.
Even in an out-of-court agreement, the judge will have the final say in the custody situation. A judge will review your written child custody agreement and either give or deny final approval. An informal hearing may follow in which the judge will question each parent and ensure each party voluntarily signs the agreement. A judge will accept an out-of-court agreement if the terms are fair and in the child’s best interest.
Family Court Custody Decisions
If the parents cannot come to an out-of-court custody agreement, they will turn the matter over to the Pennsylvania courts. In making custody decisions, the judge will primarily examine what is in the child’s best interests. A judge may take the child’s preferences into account, as well as the child’s religion and the potential impact of a parent’s romantic relationships. Title 23, Chapter 53, Section 5328 of the Statutes of Pennsylvania lists the factors a judge will examine when determining custody, which include:
- Which party will most likely encourage contact between the child and the other party
- Any present or past abuse a party committed against the child or others
- Parental duties each party performs on behalf of the child
- The child’s need for stability
- The child’s relationships with extended family members
- Sibling relationships
- A parent’s attempts to turn the child against the other parent
- A parent’s ability to fulfill a child’s emotional, physical, and development needs
- Each party’s ability to make childcare arrangements
- Level of conflict between the parties
- History of drug or alcohol abuse
- Mental and physical condition of each party
- Which parent will most likely maintain a loving and nurturing relationship with the child
The court does not make child custody decisions based on gender. It is entirely possible for a judge to give the father primary custodial and parental rights if he/she deems this is best for the child. Remember, no matter how you wish the custody agreement to turn out, it will all come down to the best interests of your child. For legal help regarding a child custody agreement or custody battle in West Chester, contact Ciccarelli Law Offices.