Top 10 Custody Myths in Lancaster County

When it comes to child custody, maintaining an accurate understanding of the law can be difficult, as it often varies among the counties in Pennsylvania. Here are the top 10 custody myths I have encountered in my practice in Lancaster County:

1. My kids will get to choose which parent they want to live with when they are 12 years old.

I have had countless clients tell me that they assume their children can decide where they want to live when they are 12 years old. This is not an accurate statement of the law but seems to be a common misconception among the general public. The reality is that as children mature and reach their teenage years, their wishes are more likely to be considered by the court, as the law requires courts to consider "the well-reasoned preference of the child, based on the child's maturity and judgment." However, courts must consider all relevant factors, most importantly what is in the best interest of the child. Simply because a child expresses a desire to live with one parent does not mean that the court will ultimately conclude that the child's best interest will be served by living with that parent. Other factors that the court must consider include which party is more likely to encourage frequent contact with the other parent, the need for continuity and stability, and whether there are other siblings, among others. There is simply no rule that a child, on his or her 12th birthday, gets to make the decision about which parent to live with.

2. I can move wherever I want and take my children with me.

The Pennsylvania Custody Statute was amended last year to include very specific notice requirements in the event a custodial parent seeks to relocate with the children. Any parent proposing to move to a location "which significantly impairs the ability of a non-relocating party to exercise custodial rights" must provide advance written notice of the proposed relocation to the non-custodial parent. In the event the non-custodial parent objects, the court must hold a Gruber hearing in which the court must consider the following three factors:

  • What is the potential advantage of the move and the likelihood the move will substantially improve the life of the custodial parent and the children?
  • Is the purpose of the move to interfere with the relationship between the non-custodial parent and the child?
  • Is there a realistic alternative custody schedule so the non-custodial parent can continue a relationship with the children?

It is important for parents to understand their legal obligations regarding relocation because if they move without providing the required notice, they may face litigation and other complications which can be difficult on children.

3. The Court never awards fathers primary physical custody of their children.

Although there was a period of time where our Courts were perceived to routinely grant mothers primary physical custody, there has been a trend to allow more shared custody arrangements between parents. This is especially true when the parents live in relative close proximity to each other, reside in the same school district, and are able to co-parent and communicate. There are also cases in which fathers have been granted primary physical custody of their children. Therefore, the assumption that mothers always have primary physical custody of their children is not accurate. Custody cases are determined based on the best interests of the children, and require the Court to consider work schedules, educational issues and whether one parent has acted as the primary caretaker. Each case is unique and there's no hard and fast rule about mothers being awarded primary physical custody.

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Do-it-Yourself Legal

Do-it-yourself projects, like remodeling your bathroom or building a deck, can save money and provide a sense of accomplishment by doing something on your own that you would ordinarily hire another person to do. With any do-it-yourself project there are risks involved, such as increased cost if you have to hire a professional in the end or if your inexperience causes other damage. 

The internet has allowed individuals to perform some legal functions on their own. Many government websites, for example, offer forms with detailed instructions that can be very helpful for people seeking to help themselves with certain issues. There are also websites that offer forms and additional services for a fee. These websites are required to stop short of offering legal advice because they are not law firms, which is made very clear on LegalZoom's website: "LegalZoom is not a law firm, and the employees of LegalZoom are not acting as your attorney….if you need legal advice for your specific problem, or if your specific problem is too complex to be addressed by our tools, you should consult a licensed attorney in your area." Because these sites are not law firms, they are also not subject to the rules that govern lawyers. This is why they are able to do things lawyers can't do, such as use celebrity endorsements. 

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2010 Amendments and Updates to PA Support Calculations and Procedures

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recently issued the updates to the Pennsylvania Support Rules and Guidelines, which go into effect on May 12, 2010. The Pennsylvania Support Rules and Guidelines are required to be updated every four years and many times involve only an update to the child support schedule with little or no substantive changes to the rules. This year, however, there are a number of significant changes and in some instances, may have a major effect on the calculation of child or spousal support. Below are some of the more significant changes to the 2010 Amendments to the Pennsylvania Support Guidelines:

1.      The first and potentially most significant change is in the application of the support guidelines to circumstances where the monthly household income is in excess of $20,000. Previously, the child support schedule ended at a combined adjusted net income for the parties at $20,000. The new schedule includes a combined adjusted net income of up to $30,000. Therefore, the basic child support schedule can be used where the parties' income is up to or equal to $30,000 per month. This should provide some much needed uniformity in calculating support for parties who have a substantial monthly income up to $30,000.

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Managing Your Support Order in the Face of Decreased Earnings

No one is immune from the realties of today’s economy. Since the economic downturn I have had a number of inquiries from clients regarding their Child Support Order if they are laid off or are receiving support payments from a payor who has been laid off.

First, if you pay support and you experience a decrease in your income due to a layoff, a decrease in the number of hours you are able to work, or a reduction in your salary and/or bonuses, your monthly child support obligation could be reduced. Under the Pennsylvania Support Guidelines, a payor's support obligation is based on the parties' combined monthly net incomes. If your monthly net income decreases, it is likely that your support obligation will decrease as well, provided that the payee has not had a decrease in his/her income and child care expenses have not changed. It's advisable to contact an attorney to assist and advise you about recalculating your support obligation using your most recent paystubs, unemployment statements or 2008 W-2’s.

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New Child Support Guidelines Proposed

Pursuant to federal law, the statewide support guidelines must be reviewed at least once every four (4) years. The support guidelines currently in place were adopted in September 2005 and became effective in January 2006. Recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Domestic Relations Procedural Rules Committee published for comment new child support guidelines. The public comment period ends on October 31, 2008.

The most significant change to the guidelines relates to the maximum monthly net income included in the guidelines. Under the proposal, the support guidelines would apply to all cases in which the parties' combined monthly net income falls below $30,000. Under the current guidelines, cases in which the parties' combined monthly net incomes exceed $20,000 are governed by Melzer v. Witsberger. Raising the maximum income permitted under the guideline formula will provide consistency and predictability in child support cases for clients in higher income brackets.

The guidelines are in circulation for comment only and may be revised by the Domestic Relations Rules Committee prior to adoption. As the recommended guidelines make their way through the process, we will keep you updated about changes that may affect you.