Know the Laws: Pennsylvania
UPDATED October 26, 2016
Please consider getting help from a legal organization in your area before proceeding with court action regarding custody issues. You can visit PA Where to Find Help for local resources and legal assistance.
You can file for custody in Pennsylvania if your child has lived in Pennsylvania for the last six months in a row. (Temporarily leaving the state, such as going on vacation, does not change anything.)*
There are certain exceptions to this rule. You may be able to file in Pennsylvania even if your child has not lived in Pennsylvania for the last six months if:
If you already have a custody order from another state and you want to change it, you will likely have to file a petition to change (modify) that order in the state where it was originally issued.****
If you've recently moved to or fled to Pennsylvania, a domestic violence organization or legal services agency in your area might be able to help. For a list of resources, please see our PA Where to Find Help page. You can also write to us to Ask A Question for more information.
* 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5402
** 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5424(a)
*** 23 Pa.C.S.A § 5421(a)
**** 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5423
Custody decisions are based on a "best interest of the child" standard. The best interest of the child is determined on a case-by-case basis. The judge will look at the following factors to come up with an arrangement that s/he thinks is in the best interest of the child (and s/he must give heavy consideration to those factors which affect the safety of the child):
No, you do not need a lawyer to file for custody. However, to prepare and present your best case, it is recommended that you have a lawyer represent you. The information we provide here should get you started and help you with basic questions you might have. However, custody issues are complicated and the assistance of an attorney can be helpful. For a list of legal resources, please see our PA Finding a Lawyer page.
The filing fee for custody is different in each county. Contact your county's prothonotary (see PA Courthouse Locations), a domestic violence organization, or a legal services provider in your area (see PA Where to Find Help for a list of resources) for more information.
If you cannot afford the filing fee for custody, you can request that the judge waive the filing fee for you by filing a “petition to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP)" when you file for custody. You will have to complete an affidavit of income and expenses and attach this to the form as well. If you receive welfare or Social Security Income (SSI) you will have to provide proof of benefits.* Your county's prothonotary may have IFP forms, or you may be able to get a form from a legal services provider in your area. The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania website also has county-specific forms available to download.
If you hire a private attorney, your attorney will also charge you fees. Each attorney charges different fees for his/her services -- you should be sure to discuss fees in detail before agreeing to hire any attorney.
* Petition to Proceed In Forma Pauperis (IFP), Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. 231 Pa. Code Rule 240
The specific steps for filing for custody will depend on your exact case and the procedures in your county.
Some counties (but not many) offer court assistance in filing for custody by having staff who can help you complete the forms. However, court officials cannot offer you legal advice or represent you in court. The forms you need to file a petition for custody will be available at your local courthouse, and it may also be possible to get the forms from your local law library or online (see PA Download Court Forms). It is recommended that you get assistance from an attorney to make sure that you have all of the correct forms and that you have filled them out properly.
When you file your petition for custody, the court will give you information about when to return to court for further action.
You may be able to get temporary custody of your children as a part of your PFA. It is recommended that you get legal advice from an experienced lawyer to address the complex issues that surround custody and filing a petition for a protection from abuse order. For more information on getting a PFA, see our Protection from Abuse Orders (PFA) page.
A person who has the right to file for custody in Pennsylvania may be able to get an interim (temporary) custody order for physical custody, legal custody, partial physical custody, or supervised physical custody.* The procedures for getting emergency custody may vary from county to county.
If you recently came to Pennsylvania from another state (and Pennsylvania is not the child's home state), a judge may grant you temporary emergency custody if it is necessary in an emergency to protect the child because the child or a sibling or parent of the child is subjected to or threatened with mistreatment or abuse.** Such a temporary order usually lasts for an amount of time that a judge believes would be enough to allow you to go back to the child's home state to file an appropriate custody petition there.***
It is generally best to seek the advice of an experienced custody lawyer if you believe that circumstances in your case need the court’s immediate intervention.
* 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5323(b)
** 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5424(a)
*** 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5424(b)
WomensLaw.org would like to thank Ellen Adler and Sharon Lopez at the Pennsylvania Coalition against Domestic Violence for their assistance with a prior version of this page.