Parents who are seeking child custody in Pennsylvania want more than face time to spend with their children. They also want the right to participate in decisions that affect their child’s education, medical treatment, school choice and curriculum, religious training and more. Pennsylvania law distinguishes between physical custody, defined as the actual physical possession of a child, and legal custody, the right to participate in medical, religious, educational and other decisions. In many ways, legal custody is just as important as physical custody for parents who desire to be fully involved in their child’s life. Legal custody is specific to each case. Pollock Begg Komar Glasser & Vertz LLC family law attorneys are skilled in guiding clients to amicably resolve this issue, and as always, prepared to litigate if necessary.

How does the court determine which parent has legal custody?

In recent years, the Pennsylvania courts have seemed to lean toward the sharing of legal custody by both parents. The courts encourage both parents to be involved in making day-to-day decisions as well as major decisions; however, there are some cases in which legal custody is awarded to one parent. Parents who are seeking sole or shared legal custody must be prepared to demonstrate they are familiar with their child’s medical needs, school teachers, grades, friends, activities, religious training and other important information. The court may also consider whether a parent is capable of understanding their child’s perspective, formulating reasonable opinions, communicating with the other parent, refraining from undue influence or asking the child to make adult choices.

When a parent suffers from addiction, mental health conditions or medical issues limiting their ability to be involved, the court may award sole legal custody to the other parent on all or some issues. Sometimes a court may order random or scheduled testing; in other cases, a parent’s decision making power may be limited to minimize the risk to the children. Each case is a delicate balance of these factors, and it helps to have experience in order to present evidence in the most compelling fashion.

What are school choice cases?

Each summer, our courts must resolve a backlog of cases in which parents cannot agree upon which school their children will attend. Sometimes it is a choice between public and private or parochial schools; in other cases, it is a choice between school districts or catchment areas. Instead of deciding which school, some judges view their decision as a choice between the two parents: who will be responsible for making decisions about education if they cannot agree between themselves. Parents who want the right to decide where their children will attend school must demonstrate they are deeply involved in their children’s education by attending school functions, participating in IEP meetings and teacher conferences, helping children do homework and participating in educational activities outside of school.

School enrollment issues should be addressed as soon as possible through negotiation or in court, if necessary. Waiting until the end of summer creates a crisis that may lead to unsatisfactory results. Judges like to take summer vacations, and many have long lists of school choice issues to resolve each summer. When parents wait until the last minute to resolve these issues, they force judges to make snap decisions. Our lawyers encourage parents to start early and develop well conceived plans when litigating school choice issues.

What if the other parent does not communicate or is critical, harsh or insulting?

Many parents who are involved in custody disputes report the other parent will not communicate in a polite manner or the other parent withholds information entirely. Whether divorced, separated or living together harmoniously, all parents who wish to be involved with their children’s lives must communicate civilly. The child’s best interest must come first, even when parents do not like each other. In contested custody cases, the court may closely scrutinize each parent’s ability to communicate. If they are not communicating well, the court may determine which parent is at fault, which can be a major factor in determining legal custody. The consequences of losing legal custody may be significant. A parent who loses legal custody rights may be excluded from participating in some or all decisions that affect a child’s life. Pollock Begg lawyers care deeply about the legal custody rights of a parent and its effect on the children as they grow and develop into adulthood.

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