The breakup of every relationship is difficult, but it becomes especially challenging where there are children involved. As soon as divorce proceedings begin the questions arise as to where the children will live and who will make decisions on their behalf. In most cases, parents work together to arrive at a temporary custody arrangement that is in place until the formal legal process is complete, and if parents are in agreement they may submit their custody arrangement without having to go through the extensive court process. No custody order is ever considered permanent: the state of Pennsylvania is always concerned with what is in the best interests of a child, and therefore interested parties are able to petition the court for modifications of existing orders.
When it comes to dividing custody in Pennsylvania, the questions that need to be answered focus on both physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody refers to where the child actually spends their time, and maybe decided in a number of ways, including shared custody, partial custody, or simply allowing one parent custody and the other the right to visitation without the ability to remove the child from the custodial parent’s control. Legal custody determines which parent has the right to make major decisions on behalf of the child regarding issues such as medical care, religion, and education.
Every family is different and has different needs, and some people prefer the flexibility that is provided by the temporary custody arrangement that exists without the intervention of the courts, or even of creating a legal document, but having a legal custody order in place has several advantages. It establishes rules and a fixed schedule, allows each parent a full understanding of their legal rights and access to the child, and ensures or defines the right to make legal decisions for the child. Without a custody order, none of these rights are guaranteed, even if you are in the physical custody of the child and are the person who regularly provides their care. Having a custody order provides important protections that temporary custody does not. Parents are certainly free to create their own parenting plans that contradict the established order if that is what works best for them and their children, but a custody order ensures that legal protections remain in place in case of future disputes.
In instances where parents are not able to come up with a custody agreement that is amenable to both, Pennsylvania has established a process that includes a number of meetings with mediators and hearings. Though most people assume that this important process will move quickly, it can actually take a very long time before a judge ever hears a custody case. Until that time the temporary custody arrangement remains in place. The Philadelphia family courts have established an expedited custody process that can speed the process, up, but even that can take several weeks.