What happens when you cannot get along with your child’s other parent (co-parent) and you decide to go your separate ways? That could be either through filing a divorce complaint or, if you’ve never been married to the co-parent, filing a custody complaint. You can start the complaint yourself or, if you are unfamiliar with the process and need guidance, you can meet with a family law attorney who will guide you with as much or as little as you need to feel comfortable.
There are 67 counties in Pennsylvania and likely 67 different procedures for custody cases. The most basic, universal way to begin is by either including custody as part of your divorce complaint or, by filing a separate custody complaint. Some counties in Pennsylvania require you to complete a Domestic Relations Information Sheet, which can include a detailed physical description of you and your co-parent. At a minimum, you will need to know all addresses, names, dates of birth and possibly Social Security numbers of all involved. You will need to know where you, the co-parent and the children have lived for the past five (5) years.
There is a fee charged for filing a custody complaint, or a fee for including custody in your divorce complaint. Each county charges a different amount; check with the court personnel or online to get the latest filing fees. If you are modifying your current custody agreement, you may want to see if there’s a fee for modification in your county.
Depending in which county you live (or where the complaint is filed), you may be scheduled to attend a seminar that focuses on child development, the effect of parental separation on children and ideas regarding the best parenting plans for your child at any age. After the seminar, you may be ordered to attend a mediation session. This mediation session is you, your co-parent and the mediator. Your attorney usually does not attend the mediation, but it is very important to meet and prefer with your attorney beforehand. You and your co-parent may reach agreement on some or all of the issues. The mediator will prepare a Memo of Understanding. This is not a legally binding document as it is not signed. You can either have your attorney make it into a legally binding document or, if you don’t have an attorney, contact the court personnel and let them know you want to put your agreement on the record and/or make it legally binding and enforceable. If you don’t reach agreement, you will be scheduled for a conference/hearing with a Custody Conciliator, who is not a judge but who is a highly trained, qualified attorney who makes recommendations for your situation. You should prepare with your attorney before the conciliation.