Understanding the ins and outs of Child Custody in Philadelphia is difficult for attorneys, let alone the average citizen. I am going to try to inform you of what I think is most important for you to know if you are thinking about establishing a custody order for your child(ren) or in the midst of custody proceedings in court.

Initially, you need to know that if you have had a child or children without being married to the other parent, legally, neither one of you has custody of the child according to the law. The child may be with you for the majority or all of the time; however, you have no more legal right to prevent the other parent from seeing the child than the other parent has to demand that you allow him or her to see the child.

Child custody and child support are two different aspects involving children. In Philadelphia County they do not co-mingle, but at times you’ll think they do, and rightfully so. Sometimes, when the parent who the child resides with files for child support, this leads to the other part filing for custody. Now, are we to believe that the non-custodial parent has been hit with a sudden overpowering need to have the child with him on a permanent basis? Okay, maybe that is the case however; it is also likely that the non-custodial parent has heard that if he can obtain custody of the child he does not have to pay child support. There will be a lot of legal hoops that one parent has to jump through to have a Judge switch custody from one parent to another, or to grant both parties joint custody where the child physically spends 50% of the time with one parent and 50% of the time with the other parent. Also, just because a parent is not paying court ordered child support, that information cannot prevent the parent who is not paying child support from obtaining partial custody or visitation with the child.

If you and your child live in Philadelphia, you can file for child custody at 34 S. 11th Street. There is a cost of $70.80 to file a custody petition. Make sure that you bring information about the other party, especially a current address. He or she must be notified of the custody action for it to proceed in court. On the date that you file for custody or shortly thereafter, you will receive a date on which you and the other party must appear before a Child Custody Master. The purpose of this hearing is for the issues to be laid out and to have a custody order put in place.

  • A final custody agreement order may be put in place if the parties can agree to the terms and conditions of their custody arrangement. If that is the case, the order will be          established, all parties will sign it and it will eventually be reviewed by the court and made the final custody order, as far as the court is concerned.
  • A temporary custody order may be put in place if the parties cannot agree to the terms and conditions of their custody arrangement. This is the custody order which will remain in place until after the full custody hearing in front of a Common Pleas Judge in the Domestic Relations branch of Family Court. The date of this custody hearing may be several weeks to several months away from the date of the Master’s hearing.

It is not unusual for parties to appear at the initial Custody Master’s Hearing without an attorney. If you are of the mindset that you will be reaching an agreement, it might make sense to have an attorney present so that you are aware of your responsibilities under the order. If you are sure you will not be reaching an agreement, just stick to your decision, and request a hearing before a judge. The Custody Master will comply. At this point you may need to seek the services of an attorney.

Having an attorney representing you in a custody hearing is of utmost importance. I have seen many, many cases where people have represented themselves in custody hearings and have ended up either losing custody of their child when they probably would not have if they were represented by an attorney. I have also seen many circumstances where Judges have issued the most convoluted orders that will have a person transferring custody to the other party “every Wednesday from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. drop off curbside at father’s place of employment, child to be picked up by mother to return home. Father to have visitation every Friday from 7:00 pm to Sunday 9:00 am when Mother will pick child up and take them to church then return child to father by 2:00 pm., where child shall remain until father drops child off at mother’s home by 7:00 pm.”

All parties must be constantly reminded that the standard regarding the custody of a child is what is in the best interest of the child, not the mother, not the father, grandmother, aunt, uncles or whomever. The parties should think long and hard before they begin a “custody battle.”  Most times Judges can see through certain situations and realize that the fighting over the child has more to do with the animosity between the parties, which the child is in the middle. Be careful, these types of cases may end up with neither party maintaining custody. There are some attorneys who will take a case and do whatever their client wants, even when it is clear that they are not acting in the best interest of the child. Beware of attorneys who will do anything for $$$$$. The child is the one who will suffer by being pulled back and forth.

When seeking a qualified attorney, be sure to question any attorney that you consult with regarding their trial experience. A custody hearing is a trail where attorneys are expected to know how to try a case. Just because you see an attorney every day in Family Court, this does not mean they are effective litigators. Ask around before you retain them. Also, just because an attorney yells insults, screams, jumps up and down and shoves his (or her) finger in another attorney’s face in the hall way or in the waiting area, this also does not mean that they are a good attorney. It is smoke and mirrors usually, they are using these tactics to intimidate other attorneys—not a good idea in Family Court. Anyway, be careful whom you retain.

After retaining an attorney, you must aid him or her in preparing for the trial. In the most extreme cases, such as those involving domestic abuse and violence, your attorney should seek out all court documents and information regarding any past incidents of abuse against anybody, especially against the parent and the child. All of this information is relevant and can be brought to the Judge’s attention during the custody trial.

Also, if you know the other party has some condition that may interfere with his or her ability to properly parent the child, your attorney can request the court order the party to take a mental health evaluation.

If you believe that the other party’s living conditions are not acceptable or if you are completely unaware of what the party’s living conditions are, you can request that the court order a home evaluation. Family Court personnel will inspect the living space and create a report for the judge.

The actual custody trial will proceed with the court determining the level of custody that each party wants. Then the trial will commence with each side presenting their evidence as to why the court should award them their requested level of custody. At the end of the trial, the judge will render a decision.

Custody orders in Philadelphia County are modifiable. That means that until the child becomes eighteen years old, whatever order is in place, may be modified as it suits the best interests of the child.

The different types of custody are: Physical Custody & Legal Custody

Primary Physical Custody:   The child lives with the person with this type of custody most of  the time.

Partial (Physical) Custody:   Allows the non-custodial parent to take the child from the parent with Primary Physical Custody at & for specified periods of time.

Visitation:  The non-custodial parent has the right to visit the child but not the right to take the child anywhere. The visits may be supervised by the custodial parent, a family member or another responsible adult. The visits may also be held in the nursery at 1801 Vine Street and supervised by court staff.

Shared Custody:  Also called joint custody, where the parties share custody of the child.

Legal Custody:  This is the right to make important decisions in the child’s life including: medical, religious and educational decisions. If any party fails to abide by the custody order, the other party can go down to 34 S. 11th Street and file a contempt of custody complaint. This matter will be listed before a judge who will hear from both parties before determining the outcome.

I cannot express to you the seriousness with which you should undertake any type of child custody issues. Seek what is best for you child(ren) at every stage and work towards the outcome with the least amount of disruption to the child(ren). Even after the custody order has been established, if you notice any change in your child’s behavior, attitude, sleeping habits, anxiety level, or bed-wetting status do not hesitate to consult your pediatrician as soon as possible and talk to the other parent about suspending visitation until the issue can be revisited in court.

Theresa D. Brunson, Esquire spent a decade as a Philadelphia City Prosecutor. Currently in private practice she continues to work within the court system as a law clerk for a State judge. After having tried thousands of cases Ms. Brunson is well versed in all aspects of the law.

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  1. ShalenaDiva on May 31, 2010 at 1:01 am

    Theresa, I heard that even if you’re married, you still have to file for custody of your child. Is this true? Thanks for dropping mad knowledge. You’re the bomb!

  2. via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    I think all people who have kids need to read up on custody laws of their states because they may surprise you. For instance, in PA, an unmarried couple must apply for custody of their children. You would think that since you had them, they are yours, legally and all, but that’s not always the case. And folks need to know that child support and child custody are TWO DIFFERENT things altogether. I also see some men try to file for custody after the mother filesd for child support to get out of paying support all together. Well, they will most likely be in for a rude awakening because it’s sometimes hard to joint or full custody. This is such a hard topic because we are talking baout children in a system that doesn’t always seem to care for the kids.

  3. Quoey Sikujua Qahiga via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Guys should let the children decide if they are bright enough or let them reach the right adge that is 18yrs.about child support only a fool of a parent denys a child support of he is able.

  4. via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    @Quoey—I’ve seen a case where the judge let the child decide, but he was under the heavy influence of a parent who was hell bent on punishing the other. Naturally, the child wanted to please his parent and decided to go with the parent who was only in it to spite the other parent. Now that that parent has custody, they could really care less about the child and now the child is suffering. I believe the child is 12. I don’t think he should’ve been made to make such a huge decision.

  5. Marian de Vries via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Oiut here most of the times the children go to the mother even sometimes there is proof the father is a better parent its beginning to change a little bit but most of the times the go to the mother

  6. Quoey Sikujua Qahiga via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    But in most cases children are left with there mums n there mums struggle alot just to give thea kids the best then thea fathers after having thea lives fun come claiming of the kid isnt that so stupied of them do u think this kid are blind u dont nid 2 tell em they c n choose on thea own.

  7. Rebecca Norris via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    it’s not Like that in a marriage either the Government owns are right as a people

  8. Quoey Sikujua Qahiga via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    @marian hv u ever asked ur self why they do that.

  9. Quoey Sikujua Qahiga via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    @Rebecca a marriage iz a covenant that when guyz break we hurt the kids so they hv a right 2 choose 2 go with the party they fill safe with.

  10. via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    I agree that it is hard to take custody away from the mothers. In most cases, I think the kid should stay with the mother as long as she’s not abusing the children. Just MHO.

  11. Marian de Vries via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    the think to mother is the best parent for the child but maytimes its going wrong becvause to mother has to much power to keep the children away from there father but its chancing the see that a child sometimes is better of with the father but i takes some time

  12. via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    @Marian–I can’t stand a woman or man who spites the other parent by not allowing them to see the child. THAT’S WRONG!

  13. Marian de Vries via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    but thats the power she/or he have out here

  14. Quoey Sikujua Qahiga via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    I think it depends with the situation.thea parent who misuse the opportunities given 2 them eg giving the kids false promises,speaking badly about the other one.

  15. Christine McCracken Payne via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    I know in Oregon it’s hard as heck to take children away from their mothers.. They have to be deemed unfit by the courts to loose em…

  16. Robin Goings via Facebook on May 11, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    I really think we need to re-vist the whole so called,”legal system.” Things need to updated and changed according to modern technology and the way things are changing in society as a whole. I realized going through my 4year divorce which outlasted my marriage that the system isn’t designed in our best interest or the childrens. I speak about it in my soon to be released book.

  17. via Facebook on May 12, 2011 at 10:30 am

    @Robin–WOW! I can’t wait to read your book. Go, girl! I’d love to promote your book on Would you ever consider allowing me to publish an excerpt to help you promote the book when it’s released? Think about it and let me know.

  18. Robin Goings via Facebook on May 12, 2011 at 12:53 pm I would love for you promote my book on your page. We’ll most definitely talk once my book is done. Thanks! I really appreciate it;)

  19. via Facebook on May 13, 2011 at 9:54 am

    @Brandon-thank you for sharing! I’m glad you never gave up the fight!

  20. Brandon Franks via Facebook on May 13, 2011 at 9:56 am

    never will i live by the word god is the glory then josh and jordan i have put my life on hold till they can understand life dont want to run with this woman then another letting god place me in the right path of life with my kids

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