For divorcing parents, child custody is a primary focus. Parents unable to reach an agreement must present evidence to a family court judge who will determine custody. However, even if parent’s reach an agreement they are still required to submit it to a judge for review and approval.
The best interest standard
When awarding custody, Pennsylvania courts focus on the best interest of the child. This means the decisions for custody and visitation focus on how the arrangement will foster the child’s sense of security, mental health, emotional development and overall happiness.
The best interest standard is gender neutral, meaning custody is not awarded based on a gender preference. Rather, the courts tend to determine it is in the best interest of the child to maintain a close relationship with both parents after a divorce. Logistical factors may make maintaining strong relationships with both parents challenging but not impossible.
Factors considered by the court
When determining the best interest of the child, the court reviews relevant factors that impact the child’s wellbeing. The court gives more weight to factors directly relating to the safety of the child. Factors courts use to make a custody determination include:
- Which parent is more likely to support and encourage frequent contact with the other parent.
- Any present or past abuse committed either by a parent or a member of a parent’s household.
- The parental duties performed by each parent.
- Each parent’s ability to provide a stable home environment.
- The availability of extended family interaction.
- The child’s relationship with other siblings.
- Each parent’s ability to maintain a stable loving relationship with the child.
- Each parent’s ability to attend to the appropriate daily physical, emotional, developmental and educational needs of the child.
- The availability of child care.
- The proximity between each parent’s residence.
- The mental and physical health of each parent.
- Any history of drug use by the parent or by a member of parent’s household.
- The child’s wishes for those old enough to make a mature decision.
After reviewing all the relevant factors, the court issues a custody order which defines parental custody and visitation allocations. Unless ongoing contact with a parent presents serious risk of harm to the child, courts typically grant visitation rights to a non-custodial parent. Custody agreements are not set in stone and as a child matures the custody agreement may need to be modified.