Custody cases are inherently emotional. In my observation, parties are generally willing to negotiate their assets, but face turmoil when they have to decide who keeps the kids and when. Because of the bitterness and subjectivity evident in custody disputes, parties usually forget about the procedures entailed with such matters.
At the outset, it is necessary to identify the different custody rights a party may have. First, there is legal custody. Legal custody concerns a party’s ability to make decisions for their child. Obtaining school records, taking a child to the doctor, or signing them up for a sporting activity all involve legal custody. Generally, parties maintain shared legal custody of the child. Second, there is physical custody. Physical custody concerns where the child lives. There are several levels of physical custody which are determined by the amount of time a party has with his/her child: sole physical custody, primary physical custody, and shared physical custody. A party has sole physical custody when only he/she have the right to exercise physical control of the child. A party has primary physical custody when he/she have more time to exercise physical control of the child than the other party. Parties have shared physical custody when both parties have equal rights to maintain physical control of the child.
Lehigh County has a three-step process when it concerns Custody actions: (1) the Mediation, (2) the Custody Conference and (2) the Judge. Either party may elect to resolve their issues before a professional mediator, but it is not required. No attorneys or children are present for the mediation. It is an opportunity for both parties to air their differences and reach a compromise concerning who will have the child and at what times. If a compromise can be reached, such an agreement becomes an Order of Court, which can be enforced by either party if the other party does not follow its terms.
The next level involves the Custody Conference, which is conducted by a Family Court Hearing Officer, or Master, within the Lehigh County Courthouse. Unlike a mediation, a Custody Conference usually involves the parties’ attorneys; but, the desired outcome remains the same: the attorneys discuss the issues before the Master in order to reach an agreement. If parties are not represented, then they would discuss their issues before the Master in hopes of reaching an agreement. If a custody agreement is not reached, the Master generates an Interim Order, usually maintaining the status quo, and makes its recommendations to the Court.
The Judge is the last step in attempting to establish custody rights between parties. If a party is represented by an attorney, the attorney prepares a Pre-Trial Statement in advance of a custody hearing, which lays out the reasons why their client deserves custody of the child. A hearing is scheduled by the Court, and the attorney (or party if they do not have an attorney) must present their case. The Judge decides the parties’ custody rights by determining what is in the best interest of the child. Once the Judge decides the matter, an Order of Court is issued where both parties must abide.
There are many twist and turns involved in a Custody suit, but you do not have to go it alone. Consider contacting our office for assistance and leave the stress of any Custody matter to us.