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.