Child custody in Pennsylvania is governed by the same set of laws, compiled in Chapter 53 of the Domestic Relations Code. However, the procedure for enforcing Pennsylvania child custody laws varies county to county. All custody actions are initiated either by the filing of a custody complaint or a petition seeking modification of an existing custody order, both of which must be properly served upon the non-filing party. After the filing of the complaint, the process can differ greatly depending on what county the complaint or petition has been filed in.
In Allegheny County, all parties involved in a custody action, including any minor children of the action over the age of 6, must attend a court ordered Generations program education seminar. Next, the parties are required to attend a Generations custody mediation session with a court-appointed mediator. Attorneys are not permitted to attend this mediation session. If an agreement is not reached in mediation, the parties and their attorneys, if represented, will next attend a conciliation in the Generation’s department. In the conciliation, the custody conciliator will listen to both parties’ positions and statements and offer settlement recommendations. If settlement is not reached, the conciliator may direct court-ordered psychological evaluations or the parties may proceed directly to a partial custody hearing in front of a hearing officer, who will enter a recommended custody order, which will become final if neither party properly objects to it. If psychological evaluations are ordered, the parties can request a judicial conciliation with the assigned judge once the evaluations are completed. If a settlement is reached, a consent order will be drafted and signed by the parties. If a settlement is not reached, the judge will schedule a pre-trial conference and set dates for the custody trial, at which the judge will enter a final custody order. Children generally do not attend any of the proceeding in Allegheny County unless their testimony is necessary.
Beaver County also requires the parties to a custody to complete a court order educational seminar conducted by Catholic Charities. Once the parties have completed the educational seminar they will attend a Custody Conciliation Conference presided over by a Custody Conference Officer. Like the Generations Conciliation in Allegheny County, the Beaver County Conciliation Conference is informal and no record is taken. Both the parties and their attorneys participate. Children under 10 years old do not need to attend the conference unless an order has been entered to the contrary. If children over 10 years old are interviewed during the Custody Conciliation Conference, the parents are not permitted to be present; only counsel and the Custody Conference Officer may be present.
If an agreement is reached at the Custody Conciliation Conference, the officer will prepare an Agreed Order which will be incorporated into a final custody order signed by the Court. If the parties are close to an agreement but time constraints do not allow them to continue, they may return for a second conciliation conference. If no agreement is reached, the Custody Conference Officer will make a report and recommendation to the Court, which will be made into a proposed order. This proposed order will become the final custody order unless either party objects to it by way of exceptions. If exceptions are filed, the parties’ will be scheduled for a pre-hearing conference with the judge, in an effort to facilitate settlement. Only if the parties are unable to reach an agreement at the pre-hearing conference will a custody trial be scheduled.
In Butler county, the parties must register for and attend the LifeSteps program, which is also an educational program. Thereafter, a custody conference will be held in front of a Butler County Custody Conciliator. The Butler County Custody Conciliator will attempt to help the parties reach an agreement in the presence and with the assistance of their attorneys. If no agreement is reached, the Custody Conciliator will file a report with the assigned judge, which will become a temporary order, pending further action by the parties. The conciliator may recommend psychological evaluations, home studies, and/or drug and alcohol evaluations.
After an unsuccessful conciliation, the parties can request a pre-trial conference with the assigned judge. The judge will review any evaluations and studies and make settlement recommendations to the parties. If unsuccessful, a custody trial will be scheduled by the judge.
If you have questions about the child custody procedures in other Western Pennsylvania counties, including, but not limited to, Lawrence County, Mercer County, Washington County, and Westmoreland County, please contact our experienced family law attorneys today at 724-940-0100.