Family law judges in Bucks County, Pennsylvania prefer that parties in a child custody matter reach an agreement rather than having a protracted child custody hearing. As family law and child custody attorneys, we urge our clients to reach agreements for several reasons.
First and most importantly, child custody hearings are naturally, highly stressful and oftentimes traumatizing for children, no matter the age.
Second, child custody hearings and the litigation necessary to properly prepare for them can be costly. Proper and thorough preparation requires developing a strategy for presenting the evidence, anticipating the testimony of all witnesses and countering any negative testimony with evidence. Preparing for the hearing itself, which can last several hours or several days, is also time consuming.
In some instances, litigation in a child custody matter may be unavoidable, particularly when the opposing party is unreasonable and demands a custody schedule that is far afield from any the court would order. Also, when a custodial parent seeks relocation, the other, non-custodial parent may have no choice but to seek resolution through the court. Litigation might also be necessary when a third party seeks full or partial custody. The party(s) who currently has custody may be forced to defend the action in order to preserve their parental rights to custody from such a demand.
The third reason an agreement is preferable is that parties in a custody matter will almost always prefer an arrangement they themselves have a say in, rather than one decided by the court. Parents tend to be in the best position to gauge what is right for their children. They also have a better knowledge of the parties schedules and the specific needs of the children, whereas the court is molding an order only from what has been presented to them in court, and only what they glean to be important issues. As we are all aware, raising a child is a dynamic and complicated matter and having a third party decide what is best for the children can be counter-productive for everyone involved.
It is important to note that a child custody agreement can be reached at any point during a separation or a divorce proceeding. A custody agreement can be entered at any point during the process. According to Pennsylvania law, a custody agreement can even be entered as an order of court prior to the parties living separately, in anticipation of the separation. We strongly urge that any agreement reached be entered as a custody order so that it is enforceable by the court. Although parties may be getting along initially, this does not always withstand the pressure of the financial division and sometimes parties seeking retribution will deviate from the agreement. If the agreement was not entered as a court order, there is no way to enforce its terms. If the agreement is entered as a court order, then the non-violating party can seek enforcement through the contempt power of the court which can mean fines, counsel fees or even incarceration for the violating party.
What Happens if the Parties Cannot Reach a Child Custody Agreement?
In the event the parties cannot reach an agreement on child custody, the court will decide custody based on what is in the best interests of the child, considering all of the child’s needs (physical, mental/emotional, educational, etc.). In order to make that determination, the court may decide to appoint a child custody evaluator. In Bucks County child custody matters, child custody evaluations are able to be performed by the Court Conciliation and Evaluation Service of Bucks County. This is a program developed by the Bucks County Court that offers the ability for the parties to participate in a custody evaluation at a significantly reduced cost when compared to a private evaluation. Parties in Bucks County are still able to obtain a private evaluation which can be more thorough and involved but is also at a significantly increased cost.
During any evaluation, the evaluator will be a psychologist or social worker who conducts multiple interviews with the child, the parties, and other witnesses such as step-parents or grandparents. The evaluator will then provide a written report with their findings and a recommendation for legal and physical custody to the court. Download our PDF on child custody law in Bucks County, PA to learn more.