Custody cases are stressful for clients. Part of that anxiety comes from the unknown about the process and procedure involved with custody cases. Most clients have never been involved in court proceedings or have never even stepped foot in a courthouse. I hope that by explaining the court process of custody actions in Pennsylvania, clients will feel a little more comfortable knowing what is to come next.
- After the filing and service of the custody complaint, which is how a custody action is started, a court date for a conciliation is received. The conciliation is the first step in the court process. You will be in front of a conciliator, who is an attorney that has been trained and appointed by the court to attempt to settle custody cases. If the parties come to an agreement at this level, the conciliator will draft an order and the case will be finished. If the parties cannot agree, the conciliator will put in place an interim custody order until the parties can go before a judge. Usually, the interim order will reflect what the parties have been doing up to that point. However, if one party has not been seeing the children, the conciliator will provide time for that parent to start to see the children.
- As stated above, if the parties agree to a custody schedule, the case is finished. However, if there is no agreement, the parties will move forward in the custody process. Depending on the county that you are in, you may be required to attend mediation with the other party in a last ditch effort to have the two of you come to an agreement. Other counties immediately schedule a pre-trial conference with the judge that will be hearing your custody case.
- Prior to the pre-trial conference, you and your attorney will decide what witnesses you will want to have at trial and the evidence you will be presenting. You may or may not have to attend the pre-trial conference, depending on the county the custody action is in. If you do have to attend, be prepared to answer questions the judge may ask you and be prepared to discuss settlement possibilities with the judge. The pre-trial conference is also where the judge and attorneys will attempt to narrow down the main issues and deal with any unique evidentiary issues.
- After the pre-trial conference, you will be scheduled for trial. Most counties will schedule you for a specific time and date. Some counties, like York, have a full week of custody trials and you will need to be ready to go within about an hours notice.
- At the trial, whoever started the custody action will be the first to present testimony and evidence. Both parties will be expected to testify and, in some counties, depending on the age of the child involved, the judge may want to speak with the child also. If this occurs, no one would be present but the judge and, if the judge allows, the attorneys also.
- Finally, the judge will usually allow the attorneys to make closing remarks regarding what their client is asking for and why it should be granted. The judge most likely will not make a decision at that moment, but will draft a detailed order that will then be sent to your attorney.
The above is a board overview of what occurs in the Central Pennsylvania area in custody actions. Each county has specific local rules that must be followed and some procedural matters may be different. To discuss the specifics of your case and the local rules that must be followed, please feel free to contact our office for a free initial consultation.