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The Custody Process in PA

1. Complaint

a. When a family law complaint is filed, a judicial assignment is determined and a suffix is added to the Family Division docket number. For every pleading after, involving the same family unit, this docket number and suffix will be used. Once a judge is assigned to your case, generally this judge will decide all matters in your case.

b. It is important to remember that "action" refers to all legal and physical custody proceedings, as well as proceedings for modifications of past court orders, while "custody" refers to the legal right to keep, control, guard, care for and preserve a child (including legal, physical, and shared).

c. You can bring an action in any county in which your child lives or your child's home within six months prior to the commencement of the proceedings. The action may be brought in another county if the above county does not have a venue and the parties have a significant connection to another county (beyond physical presence), another county is proven to be more appropriate to decide custody for the child, when the venue would not be proper, when the child is present in the county and has been abandoned, mistreated, or abused, or when the physical presence of a child is not necessary or sufficient to make custody decisions, though it may be more desirable. The court at any time may transfer an action to another county, if any of the above reasons are present.

d. Custody cases are meant to be prompt. Usually, less than 45 days after filing a complaint or petition you will have your first in-person contact with the court. Generally, within 180 days of filing the court will automatically set a date for a trial before a judge. In a county where the date is not set automatically, a party must file a motion or request for trial. The trial before a judge will end within 90 days of when the schedule was entered, and are held on consecutive days if possible. If this is not possible, the hearing will be concluded in less than 45 days. The judge's decision will be filed within 15 days of the conclusion of the trial. None of this blocks a party from ordering emergency or interim special relief.

2. Generations

a. Allegheny County Children's Court Child Custody Department created a program called Generations to assist parents, caregivers, and children with their changing families and teach skills to reach their own resolution on custody issues. This program is required for all parties filing an action relating to any type of custody.

i. The first part of this program is an adult education seminar to address building a co-parenting relationship and learning to communicate and problem solve. Adults will also learn how to help their child cope effectively with the changes, while learning how the changes effect a child's behavior and that it is best for the child to be allowed to know and love both parents. An overview of the mediation session is also provided during this seminar. During the adult session, children ages six to fifteen are required to participate in an interactive group to share and identify with peers going through similar situations by participating in activities, discussions, art, music, and play.

ii. The second part of this program is a mediation session to give parents/caretakers the opportunity to address issues and decide custody matters with a trained mediator. The goal is for parents to come up with their own successful parenting plan. Attorneys and children are not present during mediation.

3. DRO Conciliation

a. Before a trial, a meeting is scheduled by the court with a Domestic Relations Officer to hear your case. At this meeting, all parties, including children and attorneys, are present. With this meeting, the officer will familiarize themselves with your case and see if all parties can agree on matters. If all parties can agree, there will be no trial in front of a judge.

4. Judicial Conciliation

a. A Judicial Conciliation is similar to a DRO Conciliation except the Judicial Conciliation is before the assigned judge on the case.

b. Any time after the commencement of the action, the court may grant interim or special relief when appropriate. This could include, awarding temporary legal or physical custody, directing that a child or person having physical custody of a child appear before the court, and directing that parties comply with any order of the court.

5. Trial

a. The trial takes place before the assigned judge, whom act as the trier of fact, unlike a Jury trial. The assigned judge will hear testimony and review evidence from the parties.

b. The court can decide before the testimony is transcribed, and will state the reasons either in open court, in a written opinion, or in the order. The terms will be very specific to enforce the order, and may include safety measures to ensure the protection of a party of child (if needed). The order will include the party's obligations, including matters dealing with a party's intention to relocate with a minor child. No motion for post-trial relief may be filed to an order of legal or physical custody.

For more information and for a free analysis of your case, call us at the Beroes Law Center and set up a free consultation. 

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