The first question many people ask at the beginning of a custody consult is, "What's the process like?" The custody process is dictated by the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure and the applicable custody statutes of Pennsylvania. However, each county is tasked with implementing those procedures in the manner in which they deem to be judicially efficient. So, the answer to that question often depends on what county the case will be litigated.
Nearly all of our practice is done in Lancaster County, so we have the custody procedure down to a science at Chan & Associates.
The first step in the Custody process is filing a Complaint in Custody against the other parent. In the Complaint you will provide the information required by the Rules of Civil Procedure, and make your request for what sort of custody arrangement you would like regarding legal and physical custody.
Legal custody is the right and responsibility to make healthcare, educational, and other welfare decisions for the child or children. This is usually "shared" meaning both parents must participate in making these decisions. Physical custody is where the child resides and with whom. This can also be "shared" meaning the child or children spend 50% of their overnights with each parent. Or, one parent can be the primary custodial parent, and the other the partial custodial parent, meaning one parent has more time than the other.
Your Complaint, when prepared, can be directly filed with the Prothonotary's office, and a Custody Conciliation Conference will be scheduled within the next four to six weeks. Or, as the Plaintiff, you may choose to bring your Complaint in Custody to a session of Family Business Court and present it to the judge assigned to your case. This usually happens in two scenarios: (1) When the filing party is requesting a temporary custody order pending the custody conference; or (2) when one of the parents has certain criminal offenses or other issues in their history, such as a PFA or Children & Youth Involvement. Under scenario (2), the Court will likely have to schedule and hold a Criminal History/Risk of Harm hearing to determine if the parent with the criminal background is a risk of harm to the child or children.
After the filing of the Complaint, and after any risk of harm assessment is performed by a judge if needed, the next step is the Custody Conciliation Conference. This is not a formal hearing in a courtroom with a judge; this is held in front of one of three Custody Conference Officers in a Conference Room in the Courthouse. It is the first opportunity to get the parents (and their lawyers if they have retained them) in a room together to try to work out a custody schedule that everyone will be happy with.
At the conference, the parents could reach an agreement that they both see as appropriate, and that could be the end of the case. If the parties cannot agree, the CCO will come up with what he or she believes is an appropriate arrangement, and will draft a recommended order to send to the judge for signature. It is likely that the parties will be brought back in approximately three months to check-in on the progress of the case and see how it is going for the parties and the kids. If the parties come to the follow-up conference and reach an agreement, the case can be resolved right then and there. If the parties continue to disagree about the custody schedule, it will then be listed for a hearing with the judge assigned to the case.
Each judge has their own hearing procedures. Some require the attorneys to attend Settlement Conferences or Pre-Trial Conferences. Some require you to file Pre-Trial Memorandums outlining your position and the relevant facts to the case. It is important to know what each judge requires, so as not to run afoul of their rules. After the hearing and after examining all of the relevant facts, the judge is required to make ruling based upon the 16 factors for custody cases, outlined in 23 Pa.C.S. 5328. The judge will then make a decision on a custody arrangement that he or she feels is in the best interests of the child or children.
As you can see, the custody process in Lancaster County (and any County for that matter) is arduous. The matter becomes even more confusing when one parent is attempting to move the child or children to another county or State. Attempting to navigate it on your own can cause significant stress, and certain errors can cause significant delays in the process and adversely affect the result of your case. Our attorneys have many combined years of experience in handling custody matters from the outset of the case through the entire hearing process. If you find yourself in a position where you feel filing for custody of your child or children is necessary, call Chan & Associates at 717-925-0665 and set up a consultation with one of our attorneys. We will be able to help you through this process that can be stressful and emotionally draining.