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If you are facing divorce or are involved in a custody dispute, it is important to understand the basics of child custody in Pennsylvania and how the different types of custody work. Good divorce lawyers are well-versed in all aspects of child custody and can help you understand your rights. Educating yourself about which type of custody you wish to seek can help you make informed decisions that are in the best interest of your child.

What is Custody?

Under Pennsylvania law, custody is the “legal right to keep, control, guard, care for and preserve a child.” Although an informal custody arrangement may be made outside of court, it is always a good idea to obtain a legal order to ensure that it can be enforced if necessary. It is also important to note that regardless of whether you are the mother or father of a child, you have equal rights when it comes to seeking custody of your children.

Types of Child Custody:

There are two basic types of child custody: Physical Custody and Legal Custody.

Physical Custody refers to where the child lives and spends their time. It may be granted to just one parent or to both, and falls into five separate categories:

  1. Primary physical custody: This refers to a situation where one parent has physical custody of the child a majority of the time, and the other parent has custody or visitation rights the rest of the time.
  2. Partial custody refers to the parent who has the child less than 50% of the time. For instance, if the child only spends time with one parent every other weekend, that parent typically has partial custody. This type of custody may be unsupervised or supervised by an agency, parent, or another adult, depending on the circumstances.
  3. Shared physical custody is when both parents have equal (or close to equal) time with their children. For example, a child may live with each parent on alternating weeks or certain consecutive days of the week.
  4. Visitation gives a parent the right to visit their child, but does not include the right to remove the child from a custodial parent’s control. Typically, visitation involves small periods of custody, such as just a few hours and may be supervised or unsupervised.
  5. Sole physical custody refers to a situation where one parent has physical custody of the children all the time, as when the other parent is unable or unwilling to care for the child. However, parents who do not have any physical custody still may be entitled to legal custody, supervised partial custody or visitation.

Legal Custody gives a parent or guardian the right to make important decisions on behalf of the child, such as decisions regarding education, medical care, and religion. Ideally, when parents share legal custody, they agree on and make these decisions together.  If one parent is unable or unwilling to make such decisions, the other parent could be granted sole legal custody.  It is possible for a parent to have legal custody but no or very little physical custody.

How Custody is Determined

There are many different factors the court may consider when awarding custody. The main objective is to create an arrangement that is in the best interest of the child. If you are fighting for custody, child support or wish to modify an existing custody order, a family custody attorney can help to ensure your rights are protected and your child’s best interests stay in the forefront.