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Legal Information: Pennsylvania

Custody

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Updated: 
December 15, 2023

If a custody order is already in place, how can I get it changed?

If a custody order is already in place, either party can ask the judge to change it by filing a petition for a modification of custody.1 To change (modify) a custody order, you will need to go to the court that gave you the order, even if you have moved.  Generally, once a court has heard a case, that court will keep the case, even if you move to another state.  If you have moved, you can ask the judge to transfer the case (change the jurisdiction) to the new state that you are in although this is often hard to do, especially if the other parent disagrees.  See Can I change the state where my case is being heard? for more information about transferring a case to another state.

If you would like to change a custody order because of military deployment, see The effect of military deployment on custody/visitation for more information.

Modifying a custody order or changing the jurisdiction is often complicated and, as with all custody issues, we recommend that you talk to a lawyer about this.  Go to our PA Finding a Lawyer page to find someone who can help you.

1 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5338

If I move to a new state, can I transfer my child custody case there?

After a final custody order is issued, there may come a time when you and your children move to a different state. For information about how to request to transfer the custody case to a new state, please go to the Transferring a custody case to a different state section in our general Custody page. However, it’s important to keep in mind that you may likely first need to get permission from the court or from the other parent to move your children out of state. Please talk to a lawyer to make sure your plans to move don’t violate your custody order or your state’s parental kidnapping laws.

I have a custody order. Can I move with my child?

If your move will significantly harm (impair) the other parent’s ability to use (exercise) his/her custody rights with your child, this is considered a “relocation,” and you can only move if:

  • everyone with custody rights to your child agrees; or
  • the judge approves your relocation.1

If you are planning a “relocation,” you must follow the rules listed in How do I tell the other parent that I want to move?

Unlike some other states, Pennsylvania’s relocation law does not say it only applies to someone moving out of the state or a certain distance away.2 So, we recommend that you consult with a Pennsylvania custody lawyer to check if your planned move would be considered a “relocation,” which requires you to follow these rules. To find lawyers in your area, go to PA Finding a Lawyer.

1 23 Pa.C.S. §§ 5322(a); 5337(b)
2 See 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(a)

How do I tell the other parent I want to move?

If your move will significantly harm (impair) the other parent’s ability to use (exercise) his/her custody rights, you must follow specific rules to inform him/her of your plans.

You must send a “proposed relocation notice” by certified mail, return receipt requested, to the other parent or anyone with custody rights at least sixty days before your moving day. However, if you didn’t know and couldn’t have known that far ahead, and you can’t postpone your move to give the 60-day notice, then you must send it within ten days of finding out about the move.1

In your notice, you must give the other parent the following information, if you have it:

  1. the address where you and your child will live and the mailing address if it is different;
  2. the names and ages of anyone who lives in or plans to live in your new home;
  3. the new home telephone number;
  4. the name of the new school district and school your child will attend;
  5. the date when you plan to move;
  6. the reasons why you want to move;
  7. your proposal for a revised custody and visitation schedule;
  8. any other information you think is appropriate to include;
  9. a “counter-affidavit” form that the other parent can use to object to your proposed move and any change (modification) to your existing custody order- to see what the counter-affidavit must look like, go to section 5337 of the law on our Selected Pennsylvania Statutes page, and look at section (d)(1); and
  10. a warning to the other parent that if s/he does not file in court objecting to your proposed move within 30 days after receipt of the notice, s/he can no longer object to it.2

Note: If the court kept your address confidential because of domestic violence, ask a Pennsylvania lawyer if you can leave out any of the information listed above. Go to PA Finding a Lawyer.

Even if the other parent does not object, you still have to file certain documents in court before you move.2  Go to section 5337 of the law on our Selected Pennsylvania Statutes page and look at section (e) to see what you need to file.3

1 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(c)(1), (c)(2)
2 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(c)(3)
3 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(e)

What could happen if I don't give proper notice to the other parent?

If you don’t follow the notice rules listed in How do I tell the other parent that I want to move?, the judge might hold this against you when deciding whether or not to:

  1. allow you to relocate;
  2. change your or the other parent’s custody rights;
  3. order you to return your child to the non-relocating parent if you already moved without reasonable notice;
  4. make you pay for the other parent’s reasonable costs and legal fees to object to the relocation in court; or
  5. issue an order of contempt and penalties (sanctions) against you.1

However, the judge will also consider if the reason you didn’t give notice was because of abuse. If so, the judge should “ease up” on you when considering which of the above should apply in your case.2

1 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(j)
2 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(k)

If the other parent objects to the move, what happens?

If the other parent or anyone with custody rights objects, s/he must file an objection in court within 30 days of receiving your relocation notice. S/he has to serve you with this objection by sending you a copy of his/her papers, called a “counter-affidavit,” by certified mail, return receipt requested. Then, the judge will have a hearing to decide if you can relocate.1 

The judge will usually have the hearing after the other parent files his/her objection and before you move.2 However, if the judge believes it’s necessary, s/he could hold the hearing even before receiving the other parent’s objection.3 Also, if the judge believes it’s an emergency, the judge could give you temporary approval to move first and later hold the hearing to make a final decision.4 If the judge does this, it doesn’t necessarily mean that s/he will rule in your favor after the hearing, and there is a risk you could have to move back. 

At the hearing, you will have to convince the judge that moving is in your child’s best interest based on the factors listed in What factors will the judge consider when deciding if I can move with my child?5 If you don’t have a lawyer, we have information to help you prepare for your hearing in our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section.

After the hearing, if the judge approves your relocation, s/he will change (modify) your existing custody order or make a new custody order.6

1 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(d)(2)
2 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(g)(1)
3 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(g)(2)
4 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(g)(3)
5 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(i)(1)
6 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(g)(4)

What factors will the judge consider when deciding if I can move with my child?

To decide if you can move with your child, the judge will look at the following factors and give “heavy consideration” to the ones about your child’s safety:

  1. the nature, quality, amount of involvement, and length of your child’s relationships with you, the non-relocating parent, any siblings, and other significant people in your child’s life;
  2. your child’s age, developmental stage, and needs, including any special needs, and the likely impact the move will have on his/her physical, educational, and emotional development;
  3. whether it’s possible to keep the relationship between your child and the non-relocating parent through appropriate custody arrangements, considering the locations and financial circumstances of both parents;
  4. your child’s preference in light of his/her age and maturity;
  5. whether either parent has a pattern of helping or harming the child’s relationship with the other parent;
  6. whether the move will improve your and your child’s quality of life financially, emotionally, educationally, etc.;
  7. your reasons and motivation for seeking the move;
  8. the other parent’s reasons and motivation for opposing it;
  9. any present and past abuse committed by a parent or someone in the parent’s household and if there is a continued risk of harm to your child or you; and
  10. any other factor that affects your child’s best interest.1

At the hearing, you have to prove to the judge that relocation is in your child’s best interest and that you have a good motive for moving. The non-relocating parent has to prove that s/he has a good motive for objecting.2

1 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(h)
2 23 Pa.C.S. § 5337(i)