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How do courts decide which parent should have custody?

On Behalf of | Sep 22, 2022 | Child Custody

Parents in Pennsylvania need to make many different decisions for their children. They need to make decisions about what schools they will go to, make medical decisions for them, decide what food they will eat, what activities they will be involved in, what they do for entertainment and many other decisions.

Child custody determinations can be among the most complicated and emotional issues that parents need to decide. Parents may be able to reach agreements on this issue, but if they cannot, a judge will ultimately make the decision for them. Knowing this, it is important for parents to understand how custody is decided.

Best interests of the child

First, note that Pennsylvania law recognizes that parents generally have rights to both legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make decisions about their child’s upbringing, such as those about education, religion and health.  Physical custody refers to a parent’s rights to spend time with their child. When making decisions about either type of custody, courts base their decision on a legal standard known as “the best interests of the child.” To determine what is in the best interests of children, judges analyze a number of factors.

These factors include, but are not limited to:

  • How each parent sees to the child’s needs
  • Each parent’s likelihood to encourage the children’s relationship with the other parent
  • Each parent’s ability to and willingness to provide for the children’s emotional and physical care and development
  • The child’s attachment to their school and community
  • The child’s relationship with siblings and extended family members
  • The preference of the children if they are old enough and mature enough to form a reliable opinion
  • Whether there has been domestic abuse and need to protect the children from the violence
  • The mental and physical health of the parents
  • Whether either parent has drug or alcohol abuse issues

These factors are applied to the unique circumstances of each situation and are therefore very fact-specific decisions. Some of these factors will also not apply to all situations and therefore how much weight is given to each factor also depends on which factors are relevant for a particular situation.

Custody determinations in Lancaster County are not easy decisions. The decision is guided by what is in the best interests of the children.  In many situations, the parents are in the best position to know what is best. But since parents do not always agree on that, a judge may need to decide for them. Consulting with experienced attorneys who understand custody determinations and, specifically, the process in Lancaster County is very helpful as people go through any custody disagreements.