Bucks County Child Custody

Your Family Comes First

We know that you want a happy and successful future for your children. Your separation or divorce doesn’t have to derail that plan.
Keeping your family’s future on course, takes experienced strategic thinking and creative solutions. The Bucks County Custody Lawyers at Cooley & Handy can deliver for you. We understand some goals are more important than others. And your family is always at the top of the list in our representation.
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What You Need to Know About Child Custody in Bucks County, PA

The attorneys at Cooley & Handy have been litigating custody cases in Bucks County, Pennsylvania for over 30 years. Below we provide you a comprehensive overview of the custody process in Bucks County, from the filing of a Custody Complaint through and including establishment and enforcement of Custody Orders.

If you are facing the uncertainties relating to the Custody of your child(ren), we encourage you to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced Bucks County Family Law Attorneys to talk to you about the specifics of your case.

How to Start a Child Custody Action in Bucks County, PA

The first step in starting a Bucks County Custody Action is to file a Custody Complaint. This is a formal document presented to the Court which conveys to the Court important information about you, your children, and your children’s other parent, like names, dates of birth, addresses, and the like.  It is also the document that informs the Court that you and your children’s other parent are going to be, or maybe already are, living in separate homes. This document also tells the Court that you are looking for a Court Order to decide on a custody schedule between you and your children’s other parent.

Who can file a Bucks County Custody Action?


All legal parents can file for custody of their children. You are a child’s legal parent if you are a biological parent or if you adopted your children.  Parents in same-sex relationships are the legal parents of their children as long as one of them is the biological parent of the child(ren), or they formally adopted the children of the relationship. Same-sex parents who are not the biological parent or who did not adopt can still file for custody if they meet the criteria for “in loco parentis”, discussed below.


There are several groups of “non-parents” who may be able file for custody, if they meet certain criteria. The first is called “in loco parentis”, which means that the person acted in the role of parent toward the child. This parent-like status can arise in many ways, but often we see this occur when a significant other of a parent (i.e. a stepparent) lives with a child and takes on the same parental duties as a parent, or as mentioned above, a same-sex parent who never formally adopted his/her children.

A fast-growing group of “non-parents” who are seeking custody of children are grandparents. Grandparents can file for custody if 1) the children have been declared “dependent” in a related juvenile court proceeding, 2) the grandparent can demonstrate that the children are at substantial risk due to parental abuse, neglect, or drugs and alcohol, or 3) their grandchildren lived with them for at least 12 consecutive months, if that grandparent files his/her custody action within six months of that child leaving the grandparent’s home.

Even if a non-parent is allowed to start a custody action in Bucks County, the Court will generally give preference to a parent over a non-parent when making any custody determinations.

What are the Types of Child Custody?

There are two main types of custody: legal custody and physical custody. Generally these types of custody will be “shared” between the parties in some fashion. Pennsylvania revised all of the custody definitions in 2011, and no longer uses outdated custody terms like “visitation” and despite common usage, Pennsylvania courts do not use “joint” custody to describe custody between parents.

Legal custody is the right of a person to make major decisions effecting a child’s welfare, such as decisions relating to a child’s health, education, and religious upbringing. Almost all parents or parties to a custody action will be granted “shared legal custody” by the Bucks County Courts. What this means is that all major decisions affecting a child’s health, education, and religion are to be made by both parents together. If parents are unable to agree about a legal custody issue, such as whether to pursue a certain medical treatment, then one of the parties would have to ask the Court to make that decision for them. Rarely, and only in extreme circumstances, will the Court grant “sole legal custody” to one parent, rendering that parent the sole decision maker.

Physical Custody

Physical custody is the right to physical control of a child, or basically where a child lives. Bucks County recognizes four main categories of physical custody. 1) sole physical custody, which means only one parent has any physical custody rights to the child, 2) primary physical custody, which means one parent has physical custody more than 50% of a child’s overnights, 3) partial physical custody is when the number of nights spent with one parent that is less than 50%, and 4) equally shared physical custody is when a child spends exactly 50% of his/her overnights with each parent.

The Bucks County Child Custody Process

After a party files a custody complaint, the parties are schedule for a Masters Hearing at the Courthouse. The parties, and not the children, attend this Masters Hearing with their attorneys, if they have hired counsel. They meet with the Master in a conference room at the Courthouse to determine if any agreement can be reached about the children’s custody schedule. If an agreement cannot be reached, then the Master will ask the assigned Judge to schedule a custody hearing to be held in a formal courtroom in front of the Judge. At the Masters Hearing, the parties may also agree to participate in a custody evaluation (discussed below) before scheduling a hearing with the Judge.

How Does Bucks County Decide Custody?

Custody Factors

The Court relies on 15 statutory custody factors to decide what type of custody a parent or party to a custody action will be awarded. All of these factors together essentially amounts to a “best interest” standard. In other words, Bucks County will assess each of the individual factors to ultimately decide the custody arrangement that is in the best interest of the child or children.

Parents are free to decide between themselves what custody arrangement makes the most sense for them and their children; however, without an agreement, a Bucks County Judge ultimately would make the decision for them.

Custody Schedules – Equal Custody

More and more Bucks County appears to be favoring equally or near equally shared custody arrangements between both parents when each parent expresses a desire to have substantial custodial time. Equally shared custody requires that the children spend an equal number of overnights with each parent. Depending on the ages of the children, there are a number of schedules the Court may consider in order to equalize the time between parents.

For older children, like teenagers, the Court may have the parents share custody one week at a time, so that the children will spend one week with each parent before switching to spend a full week with the other. For younger children, the Court’s preference is for the children to spend shorter amounts of time with each parent by exchanging custody every few days. The most common schedule that parents follow in Bucks County is known as a 5-2-2-5 schedule. One parent has custody on Monday/Tuesday (2 overnights), one parent has custody Wednesday/Thursday (2 overnights), and then the parents alternate Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (3 overnights) which ,when attached to their weekday custodial days, results in a five day period. There are many variations to an equally shared custody schedule, but this is one that we commonly see in Bucks County.

Custody Schedules – Primary Custody

Even though Bucks County has been favoring an equally shared physical custody over the last few years, not all parents ask to have equal custody time with their children. In addition, even if both parents are asking for equal time, the Court may decide it is in the best interest of the children to spend the majority of their time with one parent (primary custody), while awarding the other parent some lesser amount of custody time (partial custody).

There are four main factors which often tip the scales in a disputed custody matter when one or both parents are seeking primary custody or one parent is seeking primary and another parent is seeking equal custody: proximity of the parents; logistics of scheduling taking into consideration work and other regular commitments; ability of one parent or the other to provide for educational, emotional, other special needs; and conflict between parents.

If one parent or the other demonstrates to the Court that he or she performs more of the parental duties for the children and that he or she is more equipped to address the educational, emotional, and other special needs of the children, the Court may be more inclined to award primary custody to that parent. In addition, the Court is usually only inclined to consider awarding equally shared custody to parents if they reside in close proximity to each other and if the parents demonstrate a willingness to cooperate and co-parent. If the parties live far away from one another, or if one parent demonstrates that the other is not willing or capable of sharing equal custody, then the Court is more likely to award primary custody to one parent over the other. Further, work and other parental commitments often make equally shared arrangements impractical.

In summary, in a disputed custody case, the custody schedule a Bucks County Judge will ultimately order will depend on a large number of factors requiring the Court to learn and evaluate a large amount of facts and circumstances about you, your child’s other parent, and your child.  The Court learns all of these facts through hearings, and through the Court Conciliation and Evaluation Service process, which is unique to Bucks County and discussed below.

Custody Evaluation in Bucks County – The Court Conciliation and Evaluation Service

The Bucks County Court Conciliation and Evaluation Service (“CCES”) is a group of family and child therapists, phycologists, and social workers, who provide evaluation services to families in a disputed Bucks County custody action. If the parties agree to participate in this process, the parties and the children will meet with the evaluator to discuss all of the issues and concerns in the case. The evaluator will meet with the parties individually, together with each other, together with the children, and individually with the children to gather information about how the family operates. The evaluator may also meet with or talk on the phone to any relevant third person (stepparents, grandparents, significant others, treating physicians or therapists of the children or the parties, etc.). After the evaluator has meet with or spoken with all parties, children, and other relevant third parties, the evaluator will try to assist the parties in reaching an agreement as to the custodial arrangement that best suits their family. If the parties are unable to reach an agreement, the CCES evaluator prepares a comprehensive written report containing his/her opinion about what custody arrangement or schedule makes the most sense for the family. The parties can accept the recommendation and have their attorneys prepare a written custody stipulation for the Court to sign as an Order. If either of the parties does not accept the recommendation, that party can ask the Court for a hearing before a Judge. The Judge will receive and consider a copy of the evaluators report as evidence in the formal hearing. It is within the power of the Judge to decide whether or not to accept and/or follow the CCES recommendation. Notably, participants in the CCES process waive any right they may have had to call the evaluator as a witness, but reserve the right to challenge part or all of the report through their own testimony and that of third party witnesses. It remains, however, within the sole discretion of the Judge after hearing all of the evidence to make the final decision about the children’s custody schedule.

What if a Parent Wants to Move (Relocate) in a Custody Case?

If either parents wants to move and wants to continue exercising custody of the children, that parent must get permission from the Court, if that move is a “relocation”, which is a term defined by the statute. A relocation is a “change in the residence of a child which significantly impairs the ability of a non-relocating party to exercise custody rights”. Other than this general definition there is no black-and-white rule about telling a party when a move is or is not a “relocation”. If you are contemplating a move, and you are subject to a custody order or action, it is best to consult with a lawyer to assist navigating this more nuanced area of custody. The experienced attorneys at Cooley & Handy have assisted numerous clients facing their own moves or moves proposed by their children’s other parent, and they have the skill necessary to guide you through this process. 

What Happens if Someone Does Not Follow a Custody Order?

There are many ways a parent can violate a custody Order, and it will largely depend on the specifics of your Order. If a person has willfully and without just cause violated a custody Order, they can be found in Contempt of Court. The most common claims of contempt are that a parent is not exchanging custody as required, one parent is obtaining medical care without consent or notice to the other parent, or is not following through with the medical recommendations of a provider, or a parent is not complying with another specific requirement of their order.

If the Judge agrees that the parent violated the Order, the Judge can 1) order that parent to jail for up to six months, provided the Judge indicates a condition that would allow for a release from jail, 2) order that parent to pay a fine of up to $500, 3) serve a period of probation, 4) suspend that parent’s drivers’ license, or 5) pay the counsel fees of the other parent.  Which remedy a Judge will choose will depend greatly on whether a party has been found in contempt before and the severity of the contempt. The Judge will also direct compliance with the Order in the future and may award make up time to the aggrieved parent.