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Child Custody

When it comes to child custody law in the state of Pennsylvania, promoting the best interests of the child is paramount.  Pennsylvania lawyers who practice family law will advise their clients that the State places a great deal of importance on regular contact between children and both parents after they have separated or divorced.

While the State encourages parties to reach amicable agreements through their Pennsylvania lawyers regarding child custody, it holds the welfare of the children in such high regard that it reserves the final right to decide custody.  The court will give weight to the parents’ proposed decision but they do not have the ultimate say.  Of course, as long as the agreement between the parents is fair and beneficial to the children, the court will most likely approve the custody arrangements they propose.

Pennsylvania lawyers experienced in family law know that the State does not allow children to be treated in the same way property is dealt with in divorce settlements–they are not property.  One Pennsylvania judge opined that “[a] child cannot be made the subject of a contract with the same force and effect as if it were a mere chattel”.  In other words, parents cannot use their children as bargaining tools when negotiating their divorce arrangements.  If the court discovers–or even suspects–that parents have traded custody rights for some sort of property considerations, it will not honor the parents’ decision.  Even after the divorce decree is granted, the court may modify the custody agreement at any time.

Parents who do not retain physical custody have the legal right to visitation with their children.  Children have just as much of a right to visit with the noncustodial parent as the parent does to visit with them.  It is vital for children to maintain healthy relationships with both parents.  The court can appoint a Pennsylvania lawyer to represent children if parents are not acting in a mature way when it comes to visitation rights.  An attorney acting in this capacity is called a guardian ad litem.

Pennsylvania holds that grandparents have legal rights in custody decisions as well.  After the death of one parent, both grandparents and great-grandparents have the right to seek partial custody or visitation rights.  Also, if a child lives with grandparents for more than a year, that grandparent has the right to seek custody of the child, usually with the assistance of a Pennsylvania lawyer.  In situations where there is conflict between the grandparent and a parent, though, they are not likely to get custody.  Pennsylvania courts are exceptionally reluctant to interfere with the relationship between parent and child.

Pennsylvania courts have followed the “Tender Years Doctrine” in the past.  They believed that the mother was best able to provide for the child’s best interests and welfare and typically granted mothers preference in custody decisions.  In 1977, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that this Doctrine violated the gender equality required by the State Constitution.  Today, the courts tend to favor whichever parent has been the primary caretaker of the child.  In most instances, the mother is the primary caretaker–but her gender alone no longer qualifies her for automatic custody rights.

Pennsylvania lawyers are ready and able to guide parents through the process of negotiating where the child will spend holidays, birthdays and other family occasions, where to attend school, and many other vital considerations.  Parents should be focused first and foremost on the health and well-being–emotional as well as physical–of their children.  Separation from their parents is every young child’s worst nightmare.  By keeping that in mind and acting in a mature and non-confrontational manner, parents can help their children deal with what to them is likely to be the most traumatic event of their childhood.

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