Pennsylvania Custody Laws

“Custody” is a combined bundle of all of the rights and responsibilities that go along with parenting. Being a parent, in the biological sense, does not mean the same thing as custody. It is important to understand that due to divorce and remarriage, adoption, or for other reasons, custody can be revoked under Pennsylvania law. This also means custody can be given to others.

If you are involved in a child custody dispute or otherwise need legal help with your child custody case, talk to an attorney. The child custody and family lawyers at the Sadek and Cooper Law Offices represent clients throughout the greater Philadelphia area who need help with their custody issues. We also offer free consultations on new cases.

In general, there are two different types of custody that the law takes into account: legal custody and physical custody. Both have their own quirks and specifics, which are important to understand when facing custody issues.

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Legal Custody in Pennsylvania

Legal custody encompasses all of the rights and abilities to make decisions for your children. Obviously, there are a myriad of decisions involved in raising your children. One of the important aspects of parenting is the right to make those decisions and control how your children are raised. Legal custody gives you the right to make decisions in all of the following areas (and more):

  • Your child’s religion
  • Your child’s education
  • Healthcare decisions
  • Activities your child will participate in
  • Other people who are allowed in your child’s life


Legal custody is often shared between parents. Even when both parents live together or are married, they can still disagree on these decisions. Usually, couples are able to work this out on their own. However, any time a parent is endangering their children, the courts can step in.

There are two types of legal custody: shared legal custody (sometimes called “joint” custody) and sole legal custody. With shared legal custody, both parents share decision-making abilities. In sole legal custody, only the one parent is allowed to make any decisions, and the other has no legal right to make decisions for the child.

Physical Custody in Pennsylvania

Physical custody refers to when you actually have your child with you and have control over their actions. While legal custody allows you to make major decisions for your child’s life, physical custody also comes with the right to make day-to-day decisions. Often, simpler decisions will be made solely by the parent who currently has physical custody, including things like:

  • What the child eats for dinner
  • How the child gets to soccer practice
  • What the child wears to school
  • Whether the child can have a friend over before doing homework
  • If the child is allowed to have a treat
  • Short-term discipline for bad behavior

Often, courts create custody orders or plans, which dictate what specific decisions each parent may make when they have physical custody. This helps create some continuity for the children, no matter which parent currently has custody. These plans also dictate how physical custody works, when each parent gets custody of the children, and how parents exchange the children.

Physical custody, like legal custody, can be shared or sole custody – but there are more types of physical custody that are important to understand:

  • Sole physical custody – the parent is the only parent who ever has physical custody. The other parent may still have legal custody or supervised visitation rights, but does not get to take the children away for prolonged periods.
  • Shared physical custody – this is the typical situation where parents each get time with their children. Common custody plans may give one parent custody during the week, while the other gets weekends and some holidays.
  • Primary physical custody – physical custody for the majority of the time
  • Partial physical custody – physical custody for a shorter amount of time than the parent with primary physical custody
  • Supervised physical custody – the ability to spend time with your children while supervised by someone else (either the other parent or someone appointed by the court)

In order to get physical custody, you usually need to have legal custody as well.

Keep in mind, also, that some terms can be confusing. For instance, “visitation” can refer to when the parent visits the child under supervised physical custody, or when the children visit the parent under shared or partial physical custody. Moreover, terms like shared custody overlap with other terms. This means even though both parents have shared physical custody, one will have primary physical custody and the other will have partial physical custody. For this reason, it is vital to have a lawyer write your custody plan to account for confusing, legalistic terminology and rules.

Deciding Custody

Courts are allowed to make final custody decisions, which can include taking children away from their parents. The main factor that controls every court decision regarding legal or physical custody comes down to the best interests of the child, according to 23 Pa.C.S. § 5328. In addition, there are 16 factors the court should use to determine which parent(s) should have custody:

  1. Which parent will best foster the child’s relationship with the other parent
  2. Abuse
  3. The parental duties each party performs
  4. Stability in the child’s life
  5. Availability of extended family
  6. Sibling relationships
  7. Child’s preference (limited by their maturity and judgment)
  8. Attempts by one parent to turn the child against the other parent
  9. Loving and stable relationship and care for the child’s emotional needs
  10. Which parent can best handle the child’s daily physical, emotional, developmental, education, and special needs
  11. Closeness of the parents’ homes to each other
  12. Availability to care for the child or make child-care arrangements
  13. Conflict between parents and the willingness to cooperate
  14. A parent’s history of drug or alcohol abuse
  15. Mental and physical conditions of household members
  16. “Any other relevant factor”

This last factor means that courts can really consider anything that is relevant to the child’s interests. One thing the court cannot consider, under § 5328(b) is the parents’ genders. This means that the court cannot prefer either parent based solely on gender.

Sometimes grandparents and others might have the legal right to sue for custody, but the conditions are limited. Stepparents may also have the right to be involved in custody disputes.

Philadelphia Child Custody Lawyers

The attorneys at the Sadek and Cooper Law Offices represent parents throughout the greater Philadelphia area in their child custody cases. We will help fight for your custody rights to care for and raise your children. Drafting appropriate child custody agreements, working with the other parent’s attorney, and fighting your case in court with strong legal strategies can make all the difference in a child custody dispute. Call 215-814-0395 today for a free consultation with our lawyers.

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