If you’re a parent considering divorce, you likely want to understand family law issues relevant to you and have a grasp on basic legal concepts to quell the myths that surround divorce and be safe in your decision. One of the most important issues for a divorcing parent to understand is child custody. More than two years ago, Pennsylvania’s child custody law underwent some significant changes.

Types of custody in Pennsylvania

To begin, there are two main forms of child custody in Pennsylvania: physical and legal. Physical custody is the physical possession of a child under 18 years of age and refers to the parent or person the child lives with. Sole physical custody occurs when only one parent has physical custody. In a sole physical custody situation, the other parent may have visitation. Shared physical custody occurs when both parents share physical custody with both parent having significant amounts of time with the child. Often, physical custody is divided into primary and partial. Primary physical custody is when one parent has the child the majority of the time and partial is when a parent has the child for less than the majority of the time. Physical custody can also be supervised by another adult or by a state agency.

Legal custody is the right to make life decisions for the child, such as decisions regarding education, health and medicine and religion. Like physical custody, legal custody can be shared or sole.

Generally, the court makes a child custody decision based on the best interest of the child. In doing so, the court looks at a variety factors. In January 2011 significant changes to Pennsylvania’s child custody law went into effect after a decade in the making.

Changes to child custody law

Perhaps most significant of the changes, was the change in how child custody decisions are made. The best interest of the child continues to be the guiding light in child custody decisions, but the updated law requires the court to look at 16 factors in awarding custody. Before the change, the court did not have to weigh every factor in its decision. Moreover, the new law also requires the court to provide an explanation for its custody decision on the record or in written form. The added information makes the court’s decision more transparent for the parties involved and can be beneficial if the decision is challenged.

The updated law also requires custody decisions to be gender-neutral and allows divorcing parents residing in the same home to petition for custody before moving. Finally, the law bolstered provisions when appointing guardians ad litem to represent children’s best interest in custody decisions.

While some parents go without custody orders and may retain some rights, only a custody order can guarantee a parent the legal right to have access to his or her child, make legal decisions for the child and the right to have the child reside with him or her. If you’re contemplating divorce, contact an experienced family law attorney who can help you maintain or gain custody.