Updated: 2020-06-23 by
Welcome to the fastest and easiest way to find out about child custody law in Pennsylvania.
How to approach your child custody question depends on your personal circumstances. Most people find themselves wrestling with issues of parental responsibility at the time of a divorce from the child’s other parent. But child custody concerns arise in many other circumstances as well—for example, if a child’s parents never married or if a grandparent or other family member has concerns about a child’s wellbeing.
Here, you'll find clear and accurate information about how to get custody of a child, including:
- How child custody works in Pennsylvania
- How to find and use the York County family law court
- How judges make custody decisions
- How to find a good child custody lawyer
- How to get help creating a parenting plan
- How to enforce a child custody or visitation order in Pennsylvania
To start, here are some important things keep in mind if you find yourself facing a possible child custody fight:
1. Put Your Kids First
When you’re feeling stressed about your relationship and worried about your kids, you may forget that a custody battle can create lasting trauma for youngsters. This means the very best way to handle a custody fight is to avoid it. You may be able to do this by digging in and working things out with your children’s other parent or you may have to enlist the help of others. There are many options for helpers: from trusted friends and family members to professional negotiators or mediators.
Whatever path you take, going to court should be a last resort. When resolving a custody dispute, a family law judge is required to consider what’s best for your kids and your family, but a court battle is likely to come at the highest financial and emotional for everyone involved. And it won’t relieve you of the responsibility of having to grapple with hard choices to do what’s best for your children. If a judge feels you are putting your own interests before those of your kids, you won’t win.
2. Consider Child Custody Negotiation or Mediation
You’ve probably already heard about mediation—the process in which you and your child’s other parent meet with a neutral third person (the “mediator”) to work out a parenting plan. A skilled mediator can help you with everything from living and visitation arrangements to the kids’ activity schedule to financial responsibilities. The mediator’s job is to help you explore all the options and settle on the solutions that work best for all involved, especially the kids.
Mediation is such an important and potentially helpful tool that most family law courts require you to see a mediator before you can see a judge. Family courts often provide mediation services—sometimes using a sliding fee scale based on your income—or they will allow you to find and hire a private mediator. You can usually attend mediation with or without a lawyer. Keep in mind that, even if you don’t reach a final agreement during mediation, the process can help you focus on the main issues in your custody dispute. That can be a big help later, if you do have to go to court.
3. Find Your Local Family Court
In Pennsylvania, family law matters are handled at the county level. Once you find your local court, you can plug in to any support resources your county offers. These may include:
- mediation services
- court forms
- self-help resources
- referrals to free or low-cost legal help,
- and more.
To connect with your court, go to our page for the York County family law court. (We don’t require you to provide any personal information to find your local information.)
4. Get Good Legal Help
While it’s possible to handle family legal issues without a lawyer, it’s more difficult to do so in situations where there’s disagreement about sensitive issues like child custody and support. If you feel you can go it alone, the good news is that local courts are now more likely than ever to provide helpful resources for people without lawyers. (See just above to learn how to find your court.)
That said, you may well find that the support of a good lawyer is essential to preserve both your time and your sanity. If money is an issue, as it is for most folks where lawyers are involved, you may be able to find a lawyer who will serve as a consultant on an “as needed” basis or you may even qualify for free or low-cost legal assistance.
For more information, see How to Get a Lawyer for Your Child Custody Case.
5. Don’t Ignore the Details
It may seem obvious, but the outcome of your custody dispute can depend on how respectfully and thoroughly you handle the process, right down to the details:
Put appointments in your calendar and show up on time. Being prompt and prepared shows everyone involved that you care about working things out for your kids.
Read all documents you get from mediators, lawyers, or the court. Legal documents will contain important facts, instructions, and deadlines. If your case is going to court, missing a deadline or failing to respond to the court as directed could cause the judge to rule against you or dismiss your case.
Complete forms accurately and with care. If you don’t have a lawyer, check your court’s website for forms and talk to the court clerk’s office if you need help. When you complete your papers, provide all requested information, stick to the facts, and make sure your writing is easy to read. If a court can’t read your documents, they may send them back to you.
Deliver papers the right way. You may have to follow certain steps—such as making multiple copies or confirming delivery—when sending legal documents to your child’s other parent, his or her lawyer, or the court. If you don’t have a lawyer and you’re not sure what to do, ask the court clerk’s office for more information.
Keep copies of important documents. Make copies of all the papers you send to others and keep all papers sent to you. Put everything in a folder and keep the folder in a safe place.
Pay your court fees on time or request a waiver. Read court papers carefully so you know whether you owe any fees and when they are due. If you can’t afford a fee, talk to your lawyer or the court clerk about how to apply for a waiver. See our page for the York County family law court to find out more about fees and waivers.
Know what to expect in court. If you have a lawyer, be sure to ask what will happen at mediation sessions or in court hearings. (It’s your lawyers job to prepare you, but it’s your job to ask questions if there’s anything you don’t understand.) Do all you can to learn the essential legal rules that apply to your situation and bring along all the documents you’ll need. Finally, muster all the resources you have to keep cool and calm. There are good times and places to express anger or frustration—just don’t do it in court.
You may also be interested in:
Understand the common factors Pennsylvania’s judges use when making child custody decisions.
Don't face a child custody fight alone. Get tips for hiring a good custody lawyer in Pennsylvania or find free or low-cost help with your case.
Answers to common questions about Pennsylvania custody enforcement, including whether police will enforce a custody order.