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Whitney Hughes, Director of the Allegheny County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service, frequently appears on the “Legal Briefs” segment of Pittsburgh Today Live on KDKA-TV. Following is a transcript from a KDKA appearance.

Custody and Visitation

Custody - legal right to keep, protect, care for and raise a child

Two Types:

(1) Legal Custody – the right to make major decisions regarding a child

(2) Physical Custody – actual physical possession of the child

Different Forms of Custody:

(1) Full Custody – one person has physical and legal custody

(2) Partial Custody – the non-custodial parent can have the child in their home at certain set times

(3) Visitation – the non-custodial parent can see the child but only at a certain place and under certain circumstances


(4) Shared Custody – both parents have roles in the child's upbringing and the physical custody

Keep in mind that when making any decision regarding custody, the courts always look at what will be in the best interest of the child.

I filed for custody and now I’ve been told I have to go through mediation. What is this and do I really have to go?

After filing the custody complaint and prior to any scheduled court dates, some counties require that the parents and children over a certain age attend a seminar that explains the court process, the emotional impact upon the children of the parents' separation and the legal process. In Allegheny County, the parties in a custody action must also attend a mediation session with a court appointed mediator. If the custody problems are not resolved by mediation or if no mediation program exists, usually the initial court hearing involves a conference with a court-appointed custody master or hearing officer. The custody master or hearing officer is not an elected judge; he or she is a court employee who is assigned to try to assist parties in resolving custody disputes.

If an agreement cannot be made at the conference before the custody master or hearing officer, home studies and/or psychological evaluations of the parents and children may be ordered. Once the psychological evaluations are completed and a report is issued, a hearing is then conducted and the court will determine the custodial arrangement that is in the best interests and welfare of the children. The best interests analysis generally includes consideration of any prior custody arrangements including the amount of time each parent has spent with the child in the past; the involvement of each parent in the child's school, religious upbringing and medical care; whether there are other siblings or half-siblings in either parent's residence; the child's preference if the child can articulate a justifiable reason for the preference; the school district where each party resides and the distance between the parties' residences; whether either parent or the children suffer from any psychological or physical conditions; whether either parent abuses prescription or illegal drugs or alcohol; whether the parents are able to communicate and cooperate with each other regarding the children; and whether either parent has attempted to undermine the other parent's custody rights.

Who has jurisdiction?

Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction & Enforcement Act, the UCCJEA, that sets forth the rules regarding which court has jurisdiction to enter a custody order. The UCCJEA provides that the court in the county and state where the minor child has lived for the six month period of time preceding a custody action is generally the court that has jurisdiction to determine the appropriate custody order. The UCCJEA also provides that if there has been a prior order regarding custody, the court that originally entered the order will be the court to modify the prior order unless that court decides that another county court would be the more appropriate forum.

Are grandparents able to win custody or visitation?

Pennsylvania statutes indicate that grandparents may be granted reasonable custodial rights in the following circumstances:

  1. When parent deceased: If a parent of an unmarried child is deceased, the parents or grandparents of the deceased parent may be granted reasonable partial custody or visitation rights, or both, to the child by the court if it is found that the visitation is in the child's best interest. The more contact the grandparents had with the child before the death of the parent, the more custodial time the grandparents will be given.

    b. When parents' marriage is dissolved or parents are separated: After a divorce complaint has been filed by a parent or when parents have been separated for 6 months or more, the court may grant reasonable partial custody or visitation rights, or both, to the unmarried child if it is in the child's best interest AND would not interfere with the parent-child relationship. Again, the court will consider the amount of contact between the grandparents and the child previous to the petition being filed.

    c. When child has resided with grandparents: If an unmarried child has resided with grandparents or great-grandparents for a period of 12 months or more and is subsequently removed from the home by the parents, the grandparents or great-grandparents may petition the court for partial custody or visitation or both. The best interests of the child will be considered and these rights will only be granted if the granting of the rights will not interfere with the parent-child relationship.

The Allegheny County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service can help you find an attorney equipped to handle this specific type of case. To speak with an attorney or for more information, call 412-261-5555 or click here.

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