When parents are divorcing, if they aren’t able to agree on how to share parenting responsibilities after the divorce they look to the courts for a custody decision. Each state has its own rules about deciding disputes over child custody.
Like many other states, Pennsylvania requires courts to consider the child’s best interest above all else. (23 Pa C.S.A. § 5328.) To help determine what is in the child’s best interest, courts analyze a long list of factors.
First, courts are instructed to evaluate each parent’s parenting skills and ability to nurture the child, as well as the level of cooperation between the parents. A child’s need for stability is an important element of the child’s best interests, so the judge will give some deference to whatever arrangement is the status quo. Along those same lines, the court will examine the child’s relationships with siblings and how custody decisions will affect extended family relationships, and will try to make the decision that will cause the least disruption to the child’s positive relationships.
Practical considerations also factor in, including how close the parents live to each other and each parent’s ability to care for the child, and the level of conflict between the parents. If the parents have a high level of conflict, the court probably won’t order joint legal custody, which requires that parents make decisions together about things like the child’s education and religious training. Likewise if the parents live a significant distance apart, joint physical custody might not make sense.
If the child demonstrates appropriate maturity, courts will examine the child’s preferences.
An important factor is which parent has a history of supporting the other parent’s relationship with the child. A parent who is likely to try to influence a child against the other parent is unlikely to win favor with the court, while a parent who actively supports the child’s contact with the other parent has an advantage in a custody dispute. The only time this factor becomes irrelevant is where there’s been abuse—a parent won’t be penalized for failing to cooperate or facilitate the child’s relationship with the other parent.
If one parent has been abusive to the child or to another family member, the judge will evaluate the likelihood of continuing abuse and will make an order consistent with which parent will provide the safest environment for the child. The same goes for any history of drug or alcohol abuse.
Judges may take into account the physical and mental health of household members.
Pennsylvania law prohibits courts from making custody decisions solely on the basis of gender.