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What do I need to know about child custody?

Pennsylvania law governs what happens to a couple's children after they end their relationship. Unfortunately, there are many misperceptions concerning child custody.

Both parents have equal custody rights, even if there is no court order. Each parent may make decisions for their children and take physical possession at any time. However, court orders may be advisable if it is believed that a parent may wrongfully take their children.

Legal custody gives the parent the right to make medical, educational and other important decisions for the child. Both parents have this right when joint custody is awarded. Sole custody grants this right to only one parent.

Physical custody governs who the child lives with and who will care for their daily needs. Shared custody means the child shares time with both parents. Primary physical custody gives one parent the right to live with the child most of the time. Courts may give a parent partial physical custody or visitation rights if one parent has primary physical custody.

Courts do not normally presume that the mother will be a better parent. The primary caretaker, either the mother or father, is an important consideration. Likewise, children over 14 cannot choose where they will live, although their maturity may give more weight to their preference.

Courts usually believe that it is in the best interests of the child to have a relationship with both parents, even if one parent has been absent, unless the parent may harm the child. Courts, accordingly, may grant both parents some custody or visitation rights.

Courts cannot make parents exercise their custody or visitation rights. When a parent does not use these rights, the other parent may seek court modification of these rights. Compliance with a child support order is not linked to custody or visitation. A parent may face severe legal consequences by violating their custody rights even if the other parent does not pay support timely.

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