What’s in the Best Interest of the Child? A Summary of Child Custody Law in Pennsylvania

There are typically two things that divorcing couples fight about: money and children. Resolving disputes over finances is relatively straightforward – the judge decides what is fair and slices up the pie accordingly. Resolving disputes over who gets child custody is much more difficult since the Biblical solution of “splitting the baby” is today, thankfully, only an expression.

Child Custody Actually Means Two Things

When we talk about child custody, we are really talking about two separate things – physical custody (Where will the child live?) and legal custody (Who gets to make decisions about the child’s upbringing?).

Physical custody is what most people are thinking of when they talk about child custody, but it is important to keep the concept of legal custody in mind as well when you are talking about custody because it is just as important as physical custody in determining what the child’s life is going to be like.

For example, consider this scenario: A mother and father divorce and the father is awarded sole physical custody of the couple’s child, but legal custody is split between the parents. What happens if the mother later becomes a born-again Christian, and wants the child to go to a private, Christian school? What if the father in this situation is Jewish, and had been raising the child in that faith? Since the parents share legal custody of the child, they are going to have to work out an agreement.

Legal custody concerns much more than just religion and education. A parent with legal custody gets to provide their input on their child’s medical treatment, and may even get to decide what activities the child is allowed to be involved with.

How Does the Court Decide Who Gets Custody?

In Pennsylvania, the courts decide who gets physical and legal custody by determining what is in the best interest of the child. To do this, they consider the following list of factors:

  • Which parent is more likely to allow the child to develop and keep a healthy relationship with the other parent and other extended family members?
  • Has the child been abused by either parent?
  • Have both parents been taking on parenting responsibilities? Or has one parent done everything for the child?
  • Children need stability. Which parent can provide that?
  • If the child has siblings, who has custody of them?
  • What does the child want? If they are mature enough to have an opinion on this, the judge will place great weight on this.
  • Have either of the parents tried to turn the child against the other parent?
  • Which parent is more likely to maintain a loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship with the child adequate for the child’s emotional needs?
  • Which parent is more likely to attend to the daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational and special needs of the child?
  • How close do the parents live to one another?
  • Each parent’s availability to care for the child or ability to make appropriate child-care arrangements.
  • The level of conflict between the parents and the willingness and ability of the parents to cooperate with one another. (Unless there has been abuse going on, in which case, the court doesn’t consider this factor.)
  • A parent’s history of drug or alcohol abuse.
  • The parent’s mental and physical health.

The court can also consider any other factor it deems relevant, so it is a good idea to hire a lawyer and talk with them about your specific situation rather than going to court and trying to represent yourself. Being well-prepared to tell your side of the story to the court is evidence that you have the best interests of your child in mind.