Becoming a grandparent is a special event in one’s life, and grandparents often form close and meaningful bonds with their…
How to Get a Child Custody Agreement In Place In Pennsylvania
Custody proceedings can be difficult for all parties involved, especially the children. The best way to avoid the added stress of court appearances in a custody action is to resolve the matter through a custody agreement. A custody agreement is a parenting plan that outlines how you and the other parent will cooperate in raising your children. This agreement gives you two the freedom to craft an arrangement that works best for you and your children. Keep in mind, if you are unable to reach an agreement, the court will impose a plan that it believes is in the best interests of the children.
You and the other parent can negotiate and enter into an agreement at any point in time throughout your custody action. This could be shortly after a custody complaint is filed or may not occur until you’ve had some input from the court, i.e. after attendance at a custody conference or completion of the CCES process. You can learn more about the CCES program in our related article, “How does the court determine who gets custody?”
So, what should go into your custody agreement?
First, Your Agreement Should Include a Legal and Physical Child Custody Schedule
Pennsylvania statute 23 Pa.C.S. §5322 defines legal custody as “the right to make major decisions on behalf of the child, including, but not limited to, medical, religious and educational decisions.” This decision-making right can be shared jointly between you and the other parent or can be held solely by one party. Joint legal custody is the most common arrangement and is preferred by Pennsylvania courts. If you and your co-parent agree to share legal custody, you will have to discuss and agree on many if not all decisions regarding your children. This may include topics like what extracurricular activities the children will participate in, where they will go to school, what if any religion they will participate in, and medical care and access to medical records.
Pennsylvania law defines physical custody as “the actual physical possession and control of a child.” This determines where your children will live and who will take care of them. Physical custody may be shared, primary/partial, or sole. Shared physical custody is where both parents have equal or nearly equal custody time. In a primary/partial arrangement, one parent has the children for a larger share of custodial time than the other parent. A parent with sole physical custody has all the children all the time and the other parent does not see the children.
The most common physical custody arrangements in Pennsylvania are equally shared or a primary/partial division. The Pennsylvania courts tend to favor an equally shared physical custody schedule because it is almost always in the best interests of the children to spend equal time with each parent. However, when crafting a custody agreement, you and the other parent have the flexibility to choose a schedule that not only benefits your children but is also convenient for you as parents. No matter what type of physical custody arrangement you choose, your agreement should clearly spell out the terms of your schedule including what days each parent will have the children, and where and when custodial exchanges will occur.
Second, You Should Include a Vacation and Holiday Calendar in Your Child Custody Agreement
As part of your physical custody schedule, you will want to have a plan for where the children will be on holidays and how much vacation time they will spend with each parent on a yearly basis.
In Pennsylvania, it is common to alternate holidays between parents on a year to year basis. For example, your agreement may state that “Easter shall be with Mother in even years and Father in odd years.” However, for some of the bigger holidays, it is common to split the day into two portions. For example, your agreement may divide Christmas into two periods as follows: from 3 pm Christmas Eve until 3 pm Christmas Day, and from 3 pm Christmas Day until 3 pm December 26th. You and the other parent could then alternate which portion of the holiday each party has on a yearly basis.
Other possible holiday arrangements include scheduling a holiday twice a year, so each parent has a chance to celebrate with the children or fixing the holidays such that one parent has the same holiday every year. It is common to assign holidays such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, mother’s birthday, and father’s birthday to the respective parent each year. Additionally, it is also common to extend some holidays to include the weekend, such as Memorial Day and Labor Day.
When creating a holiday schedule, it is important to focus on the holidays that are important to your family. If there is a particular holiday that your family never celebrates, there is no need to include it in your agreement.
Your agreement should also dictate how much vacation time each parent is permitted to take with the children each year. In Pennsylvania, it is common for each parent to receive two (2) weeks of vacation with the children on a yearly basis. If the children are younger, it is often common to impose a restriction that the two (2) weeks of vacation can only be taken non-consecutively. It is typical to choose this type of arrangement with younger children because it is often difficult for them to be away from the other parent for an extended period of time. If the children are older, then you can decide whether to allow vacation time to be taken consecutively or non-consecutively.
It is important to note that Pennsylvania custody agreements often assign a priority ranking among the regular physical custody schedule, vacation time, and holiday schedules. The holiday schedule takes precedence over the vacation schedule, and the vacation schedule take precedence over the regular physical custody arrangement. If you and your spouse wish to follow this common arrangement, this should be explicitly stated in your agreement.
Finally, Your Child Custody Agreement Should Address the Day to Day Details of Co-Parenting
While the most important thing to address in your custody agreement is how legal and physical custody will be shared, it is important not to neglect the details of how you will go about your day to day life while following your co-parenting schedule.
Some of these essential topics to address include:
- Transportation: How will the children get to/from school or activities? Who will pick up/drop off the children during custodial exchanges? Are any friends or relatives permitted to transport the children?
- Communication with children: When, how often, and in what manner can the other parent communicate with the children during your custodial time?
- Communication between parents: How will you communicate with the other parent regarding the children? Will you use phone, email, or have in-person discussions? It’s also common to include a provision that neither parent will disparage the other in front of the children.
- Expenses: How will expenses not covered by child support, like extracurriculars and medicals not covered by insurance, be shared between the parents?
- Travel: Are there any travel restrictions regarding where the parents can take the children, such as out of state or out of country? How much advance notice should be provided by a parent taking a trip?
- Right of First Refusal: When one parent is unable to care for the children for a period of time, such as 4 or 5 hours, will the other parent have the option to step in on this short notice and care for the children?
- Relocation: What if one parent wants to move with the children? How will this be handled? You can learn more about relocation here. (link to article “Pennsylvania Custody Relocation: what you need to know.”)
How Does Your Child Custody Agreement Become Official in Pennsylvania?
Once you come to a resolution, your attorney will draft a formal custody stipulation encompassing the terms of your agreement. Both you and the other parent, and sometimes each of your attorneys, will sign off on this stipulation. Then, your attorney will file your agreement with the court so that it can be entered as an enforceable court order.
The Pennsylvania courts appreciate when parties resolve their custody dispute amongst themselves and are eager to accept agreements. The court’s goal in custody is to reach an outcome that is in the best interests of the children. This is why agreements are so appealing to the court. Parents know their children better than anyone else and almost always craft the best possible arrangement for the children.
Custody agreements can be extensive and complicated. It’s important to use precise language that does not leave the agreement open to interpretation. This is why it’s best to get an attorney involved to ensure that the agreement is prepared properly and addresses possible issues that you might not have considered. The attorneys at Cooley & Handy have a wealth of knowledge and experience in crafting custody agreements and can guide you through the process.