Legal Information: Pennsylvania


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November 4, 2022

In which state do I file for custody?

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.)1

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:

  • Your child is less than six months old and has lived in Pennsylvania since birth1;
  • Your child is in Pennsylvania and it is necessary in an emergency to protect the child because you, your child, or the child’s sibling are subjected to or threatened with abuse;2 or
  • Your child lived in Pennsylvania for at least six months but:
    • Moved away from Pennsylvania, although you must still be living there; and
    • S/he has not lived in any other state for 6 months in a row since leaving Pennsylvania.3

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.4

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 Places that Help page.  You can also write to us to Ask A Question for more information.

1 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5402
2 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5424(a)
3 23 Pa.C.S.A § 5421(a)
4 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5423

How will a judge make a decision about custody?

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):

  1. Which party is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between the child and another party;
  2. The present and past abuse committed by a party or member of the party’s household (such as a new spouse); and whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child or to an abused party and which party can better provide proper physical safeguards and supervision of the child;1
  3. Information related to any involvement of the child or parent/party with a criminal child abuse proceeding or with protective services (related to child abuse), including:
    • if the child has been the subject of an indicated or founded report of child abuse;
    • if either parent/party or a person living with either parent/party has been reported for child abuse (when the allegations were “indicated” or “founded”);
    • the details of the abuse, and where the abuse investigation took place; and
    • if a parent/party or a member of his/her household has been provided services through protective services and if so, the type of services provided, the date, and other circumstances surrounding the provision of services;2
  4. The parental duties performed by each party on behalf of the child;
  5. The need for stability and continuity in the child’s education, family life and community life;
  6. The availability of extended family;
  7. The child’s sibling relationships;
  8. The preference of the child, based on the child’s maturity and judgment;
  9. The attempts of a parent to turn the child against the other parent, except in cases of domestic violence where reasonable safety measures are necessary to protect the child from harm;
  10. Which party is more likely to maintain a loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship with the child to meet the child’s emotional needs;
  11. Which party is more likely to attend to the daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational and special needs of the child;
  12. How nearby the homes of the parties are;
  13. Each party’s availability to care for the child or ability to make appropriate child-care arrangements;
  14. The level of conflict between the parties and the willingness and ability of the parties to cooperate with one another; (Note: A party’s effort to protect a child from abuse by another party is not evidence of unwillingness or inability to cooperate with that party);
  15. The history of drug or alcohol abuse of a party or a member of a party’s household;
  16. The mental and physical condition of a party or a member of a party’s household; and
  17. Any other relevant factor.1

1 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5328(a)
2 23 Pa.C.S.A.
§ 5329.1

Do I need a lawyer?

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.

If you are going to be in court without a lawyer, our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section may be useful to you.

How much does it cost to file for custody?

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 Places that 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.1 You will have to complete an affidavit of income and expenses and attach this to the form as well. 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.

1 231 Pa. Code Rule 240

What are the steps for filing for custody?

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.

Can I get temporary custody as a part of a protection from abuse order (PFA) against the other parent?

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.

Can I get temporary custody?

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.1 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.2 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.3

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.

1 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5323(b)
2 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5424(a)
3 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5424(b)

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