While judges base child custody decisions on many variables, this list includes some of the more important factors Pennsylvania courts typically consider when making these decisions. While there are no guarantees in child custody actions, taking these actions may increase your chances of getting custody after divorce.
1. Try to find an adequate and safe living environment.
This can be a problem for many divorcing parents, especially financially. If you live in a home with one bedroom, an infant in a bassinet is fine, but you may have difficulty convincing a judge that you can sleep three teenagers comfortably in the same space.
Try to find something that has age-appropriate bedroom situations, allows older boys and girls to sleep separately, and an environment that avoids over-crowding. The onset of puberty mandates separate sleeping quarters, and the failure to provide them will be used against you in court. Also keep in mind that as children age, they increasingly need their own living space.
Most importantly, try to find housing and a living situation that is comparable to or better than what you had while living with the children’s other parent in terms of basic services and living space. Obviously, if you can keep the marital home this has its own advantage as the children are comfortable and acclimated to those surroundings.
Of course, financial considerations may limit your choices. So, no matter where you move, keep it clean, neat, and habitable. Modest housing that is clean and neat is usually all most custody judges will expect. Even if you must rent a less-than-perfect abode, and the opposing parent has that, “nice house in the country,” adequate sleeping areas, and cleanliness should keep you on equal ground. Judges may be negatively swayed by pictures of dirty homes and dingy appearances.
2. Stay in the same school district.
If you move out of your child’s school district, the opposing parent may argue that custody is best kept with them, so the child can retain the same friends and teachers. This is a powerful and persuasive argument, and if the custody case is otherwise a close one, this often carries the day. You should try to find housing in the same school district if you are the parent leaving.
Many times a parent who leaves the family residence moves without regard to the school district. They move long distances to be with new loves and parents, or just to get a fresh start. Keep in mind that school is one of the most important aspects of your children’s lives. This is usually where most of their friends are. Staying in the same district signals to the court that you planned your move with your children’s best interest at heart.
However, if you move to a location with a much better school district than the one your child/children currently attend, you can present this in your custody case. Just remember, much better and a little better are not the same things. In most instances, moving schools for children who are established students is probably not going to help your custody case.
3. Find a job/work schedule that fits the children’s routine.
Working is not a negative and often suggests stability to the custody court. However, it is important that you try to find a work schedule that fits the children’s schedule. Working 8 to 5 or some variation is usually best as it coincides with school and maximizes the amount of time parents can spend with their children. Parents who work the third shift or second shift must often face arguments that they aren’t available at critical times. The more time for the kids, the more chances you have to increase your custody.
Keep in mind though that changing jobs for custody reasons could affect your support situation, so again, be careful. The child support laws are not always kind to people who change jobs, even if for good reasons.
4. Avoid cohabitation too soon in a new relationship.
New relationships can influence the relative strength of your child custody position and your choice of a new mate can hurt your custody case. Many custody problems arise when one parent leaves another for a new paramour and the other parent often perceives this as a marital or relationship issue, and will simply oppose the new person on those grounds alone.
If you are already separated, and then meet someone new, the other parent will again often oppose the new partner. This is particularly true where the relationship/divorce issues still have not been resolved.
While a custody court is highly unlikely to deny a parent a new paramour or spouse, the how, when, and where of the new relationship can influence your custody position. Ending one relationship and moving directly into another is not considered best for the children. Often lawyers see clients who have left one person and moved in directly with another, to start their new relationship. This may indicate instability and may expose the child to an adult influence that is not well-known to either of the parents.
A good example is when a woman leaves her husband, and a few weeks later moves in with a new love interest, who is a single father with two kids of his own. This situation gives the husband plenty of persuasive and sound arguments for the custody courts. He will argue that the mother barely knows the new man in any meaningful way, and that this is disruptive and confusing to the children. Further, the “new children” add additional uncertainty. What if one turns out to be a behavioral nightmare or often bullies the other kids in the household?
Also, if the new paramour is later found to have a significant criminal record, this will almost certainly hurt your custody case. Courts may then inquire if you checked the new person out carefully, and entered your new relationship with your children’s best interest at heart.
5. Find and keep stability in your life.
Stability is a key to custody. Few things concern a custody judge more than a parent who keeps changing jobs, changing housing, and changing who they are dating and this overall pattern will reflect instability to a judge.
Psychologists tell courts that children need routine and stability and this extends to all aspects of the child’s life. Therefore, judges look for stability and consistency in a parent. If you do need to change jobs or housing, do so with a carefully thought out plan of action.
If you change your life around a lot, the other parent will argue that no matter how your current situation seems to the court, it is unproven and unlikely to last. You can’t convince a judge your situation is a good one if the other side can point out that it is subject to constant revision.
So, remember to think about stability in all aspects of your personal and public life, to ensure an advantage in custody litigation.
6. Hire a lawyer who knows custody and who you can afford.
No matter how smart or capable you are, you should never act as your own lawyer. Court rules are complex, state-specific, and filled with pitfalls for the untrained. This is particularly true in the law of child custody. Virtually every family law attorney will tell you that nothing is more welcome than an unrepresented party. Many people are convinced though, that they can represent themselves. The problem is, even if you have figured out enough laws and procedures, you’ll never be able to decouple yourself emotionally from the fight. Do you want a surgeon that gets angry, sad, or depressed while she operates on your body? A good lawyer is not emotionally attached to your situation and can help you better understand what is possible and realistic. This doesn’t mean they have to be cold or unsympathetic, but it does mean they must and can maintain a professional detachment.
While a good lawyer is rarely free, costs can vary greatly. In fact, most people don’t know what to pay for an attorney. A highly experienced attorney might charge a lot more for a particular case, but might not be able to be any more successful than a novice attorney, if the facts and law are very certain in a case.
You should also stay within budget. If you overpay for your resources, you might not be able to sustain the custody litigation. You don’t want to burn all of your legal funds too quickly, so be careful about spending too much too soon. You might be able to afford the high-priced attorney for a short term, but what if the case drags on?
7. Put the children’s needs above the custody fight.
Putting the child’s needs first is a simple and easy way to show the court that you are the more fit parent. While this seems simple in theory, divorcing couples often forget to consider the child’s needs and emotions over what might make the other parent’s life more difficult.
Showing a court you put the child ahead of the litigation or custody fight indicates to the judge that you are a fit parent. So, evaluate your position before you act. Are you acting merely out of anger or frustration with the other parent? If so, step back and be sure your decision is in the child’s best interest.
8. Don’t involve the children in the custody fight.
Avoid at all costs placing the child directly in the custody battle. The less they know about the parents’ custody disagreements, the better the job the parents are doing.
Yet, many parents are convinced that their young child has strong feelings about which parent they prefer, and actively involve them. While this could sometimes be the case, it is often a result of that parent projecting their views of custody on the child. Judges and lawyers often have both parties claiming that the child has indicated that the child wants to live with them. Then, when the child meets with a psychologist or in the judge’s chambers it is often discovered their actual preference is for some form of split custody.
Therefore, avoid extensively discussing the custody situation with the child, and leave that to the counselors and judges. Children will often tell you what they think you want to hear, no matter how independent you may feel they are being.
Finally, avoid using the child as a messenger. No child should have to relay changes in custody or one parent’s displeasure to the other parent. Doing so is often grounds for a court to find you unfit. If the other parent needs to be talked to about a custody issue, do it yourself, or through counsel. Young children and even older children do not need to relay custody changes or address custody disputes.
9. Facilitate the opposing party’s custody as much as possible.
If you thought it was your job to prevent the other side from exercising custody, you haven’t been paying attention to common sense or the law. If the other parent is fit, or more precisely, a court has found them to be fit, then it is your job as a parent to ensure the child benefits from the love and companionship of the other parent.
Take for instance the Pennsylvania statute, which many other states have versions of:
- 5303. Award of custody, partial custody or visitation.
(a) General rule.–In making an order for custody, partial custody or visitation to either parent, the court shall consider, among other factors, which parent is more likely to encourage, permit and allow frequent and continuing contact and physical access between the noncustodial parent and the child…. (emphasis added)
The court will almost certainly consider whether you are the parent who will facilitate the other parent’s relationship with the child. It is the first factor listed in the statute. In my experience, it is the single most important factor custody masters and courts consider. So, you should show the court that you are more than willing to facilitate custody for the other parent. Therefore, you should not work to deny the child to the other parent if you want to have and keep primary custody.
10. Recognize Your Own Limits & Needs
Many times custody issues arise when a relationship breaks up, or other stressors begin working on the children or parties. Lawyers often find that custody clients may need to slow down and work on their own issues before rushing into a court battle. Litigating the custody issues at a time when the drama of the breakup is causing erratic behavior can lead to bad results in the custody case. A parent who waits a short time to stabilize their life and who has placed some time between the breakup and the custody battle will often fare better in court. You want the judge or mediator to meet you at a high point, not your lowest state. This may mean sitting back and taking care of yourself, and not moving as quickly forward with your custody case, but the long-term result is often better.
The law surrounding child custody is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a family law lawyer.
Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5323-5333
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