You love your child and want the best for them. Your marriage may end, but you are still a parent. You need to navigate the divorce process so you start a new life in the best possible position and ensure that your child’s needs are met, too. 

You Are Not Alone 

Parents with special needs children are more likely to get divorced than other married couples, according to Psychology Today. It is estimated that: 

  • 20% of US homes have a child with a disability, special health care needs, or a chronic illness  
  • The divorce rate of married parents with a child with disabilities might reach 87% 
  • The divorce rate for those with a child who has autism is about 80% 

The challenges and disagreements that can arise when parenting a special needs child may be the reason for a divorce or just one of many that pushed the relationship over the edge. 

Things to Think About 

When you are trying to plan your post-marriage life, think about: 

  • Your child’s needs, whether they are functional, medical, psychological, educational, or social 
  • What will meeting those needs cost in time, effort, and money 
  • Who will absorb those costs, and how 

You may need the help of a life care specialist to come up with answers. If you and your spouse disagree about your child’s needs and care, an outside third party without a personal bias may help bring the two of you together on these issues. 

Child Custody 

Whether your child has special needs or not, decisions about which parent should have what kind of custody should be guided by your child’s best interests. The judge in your case is bound by law to use that standard. If the two of you agree on custody issues, the judge will ensure your plan meets that standard. If you cannot agree and the matter is litigated, that is how the judge will make a decision. 

What is your situation? 

  • With whom will the child live? 
  • How much time will they have with each parent? 
  • How stable will each parent’s household be? 
  • Are both parents up to the task of caring for the child equally?  
  • Is one in a better position to provide care most of the time? 
  • If one parent is unwilling or unable to handle the child’s needs, is the other equipped to be the exclusive caregiver? 
  • How involved will the extended families of each parent be in helping with your child? Will one be alone, while the other will benefit from family members playing active, supporting roles? 

If you have another child without special needs, what custody arrangement is best for them? 

Child Support 

The state’s child support formula does not account for the additional financial burdens of parenting a child with special needs, including specialized care, equipment, enhanced nutrition, or accessible housing. But a judge may order a non-custodial parent to pay more than the guideline indicates if the circumstances call for it. 

Typically, the obligation to pay child support ends when the child reaches the age of majority (18) or graduates from college. But if a child with special needs requires caregiving for an extended period, if not the foreseeable future, that may be extended.  

Depending on the extent of a child’s disabilities, they may qualify for government benefits (including paying for custodial and medical care), help in finding employment, and independent living. The parents must do their best to get as much help as possible for as long as possible.  

The parent receiving child support should not expect the payor to pick up the tab for services that may be free or at a reduced cost, thanks to government or charitable programs. 

Get the Help You Need from an Attorney You Can Trust   

If you are thinking about getting divorced or have decided it is the next step, call us at (215) 608-1867. We can discuss your situation over the phone, via a teleconference, or meet in our Langhorne or Doylestown office.   

If you are a divorced or separated parent, you probably share physical custody of your child or children. This means you are with your child physically, spend time with them, and supervise your child. The law presumes a child is better off spending time with both their parents, though custody rights can be limited depending on the situation. 

What is Custody? 

There are two types: 

  • Legal custody gives the adult the right to make important decisions for the child. This covers essential issues like medical care, legal issues, education, and religious practices or beliefs. 
  • Physical custody refers to who is physically with and overseeing the child.

One person has sole legal custody of a child, or it is shared. Physical custody is: 

  • Sole: One person has these rights, and the child spends their time with them. 
  • Joint or Shared: Normally, two people have these rights. The child spends about half their time with each. 
  • Primary: The child spends most of their time with one adult. 
  • Partial: The child spends some time with this person, the rest with the party having primary physical custody. 

If the parties cannot agree on who should have physical custody and what type, the issue can be litigated, and a judge will decide the issue based on the child’s best interests. If there is an agreement, the judge will review and possibly reject it based on the same standard. 

How Does Joint Physical Custody Work? 

In most cases, the ideal joint physical custody arrangement will be for the child to spend the same time with each parent or close to it. Practical realities often stand in the way of that perfect outcome, such as: 

  • The distance between the parents’ homes 
  • Where the child attends school 
  • The parents’ work schedules 
  • The child’s after-school activities and schedule 

To try to deal with these limitations, the parties should come up with a parenting time plan (which is submitted to the court as part of the custody process). Parenting time is the time a parent spends with a child. The plan maps out which parent will spend what time with the child. The parties should look at their situations and develop the best plan possible. They should try it, and if it is not workable, be flexible enough to adjust it. 

What are Our Options? 

A common approach is a 2, 2, 3 schedule. One parent has the child Monday and Tuesday nights, the other has Wednesday and Thursday nights, and the parents alternate weekly for Friday through Sunday. This presumes the child is too young for school, or the parents’ homes are close enough for the child to attend the same school, and neither parent works nights or weekends. 

Another way to share physical custody is to find a way to equally split time by the child being with one parent during the school year, weekends are shared between the two parents, holidays are split, and the other parent has the child when school is not in session. This approach is more practical if the parents do not live in the same area. 

This is not about a child punching a clock, so they are with a parent precisely half the time. The focus should not be on an equal quantity of time, but on maximizing the quality of time the child has with each parent, given everyone’s schedules and commitments. 

Child Custody Lawyers You Can Trust   

If you have questions about physical custody or want legal representation in a custody matter, call Karen Ann Ulmer, P.C., at (215) 752-6200 today.

When divorcing, stepparents are often conflicted about maintaining a relationship with their stepchildren. If you have known your stepchildren for a long time and/or were a significant part of their lives, you may want to continue those relationships after the divorce.  

Does a divorce end a spouse’s role in raising a stepchild? Not necessarily. Although uncommon, a judge may order a stepparent to have custody of a child after a divorce if they find it is in the child’s best interest. A judge can also order that a stepparent have visitation with a stepchild to maintain the relationship.  

Who Qualifies as a Stepchild? 

A stepchild is your spouse’s child by a former partner. So if you marry, and your new spouse already has a child, you are a stepparent.   

What is Child Custody? 

Child custody gives a person certain rights concerning a child. The adults involved can agree to a custody arrangement (which needs a judge’s approval), or the issue can be litigated. There are two different types of custody:  

  • Physical: The adult’s right to have the child spend time or live with them. This custody could be sole (one person has full custody), primary (the child lives primarily with you), shared, or partial (also known as visitation rights). 
  • Legal: This allows the adult to make essential decisions for a child. This can include medical, educational, religious, legal, and other issues impacting the child’s well-being. There is either sole or shared legal custody.

A judge’s primary concern when deciding who should have what kind of custody is what is in the child’s best interests. State statute lists 16 factors a judge may consider when deciding this issue, and they are free to consider others depending on the case’s facts. 

These types of cases are filed by unmarried couples, or married couples separating or divorcing. 

Could a Stepparent Have Custody of a Stepchild After Divorcing the Child’s Parent? 

If there is a custody dispute between a parent and a nonparent, the law presumes the parent should get custody. This presumption can be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence. For instance, if the parent (s) have a serious substance abuse issue (alcoholism, drugs, or other addiction), have neglected the child in some way, or are not able to care for the child, then a stepparent may obtain custody.  

You may be awarded custody depending on your involvement in the child’s life. If you stand in loco parentis (in place of the parent) for the child, you can seek custody rights. This legal status occurs if you help raise the child without a formal adoption, and a biological parent is not part of their life.  

A judge may consider:  

  • How long you have acted in loco parentis 
  • Your level of parenting involvement 
  • How independent you are when acting as a parent 
  • The child’s emotional dependence on you and whether the child sees you as a parent 

Judges have wide latitude, but not total discretion, when making these decisions. 

Can a Divorcing Stepparent Who Adopted Their Stepchild Get Child Custody Rights? 

If you formally adopted your stepchild, you are then their legal parent. As such, you have the same rights and obligations as a biological parent, so you can seek custody of the child if you are divorcing or separating from your spouse. Adoption of a stepchild is a common practice. It usually happens when both biological parents consent. It may also occur if a court involuntarily terminates a parent’s parental rights. 

Adoption empowers a stepparent to make legal and medical decisions concerning a stepchild. You would be legally obligated to care for a child if your spouse becomes incapacitated or dies. Adoption also puts you in a stronger position to seek child custody rights if the marriage ends in a divorce. 

Child Custody Lawyers You Can Trust   

Whether you are a stepparent seeking child custody rights or a parent who wants to prevent that from happening, Karen Ann Ulmer, P.C. lawyers may be able to help you reach your goals. If you have questions about child custody or need legal representation, call us at (215) 752-6200 today.  

Unless there is a serious issue, you will be sharing child custody with your co-parent in some way. This is not a problem for most parents because there is still some goodwill with the other parent. If you and your ex do not get along, you must find your way to peace.  A peaceful (or at least non-fighting) relationship will help you and your children navigate life after the divorce is over.  

What is Child Custody? 

Pennsylvania has two types of child custody: legal and physical. Legal custody is your ability to make important decisions concerning your child. They could concern education, healthcare, or religious upbringing. Courts award sole or shared legal custody (the more common arrangement).

Physical custody is the right to have your child live or be with you. There are different types of physical custody: 

  • Sole: One parent has exclusive physical custody.  
  • Primary: The child mostly lives with one parent, and generally, the other parent gets partial or supervised custody. 
  • Shared: The child spends roughly the same time with each parent. 
  • Partial: The child spends less than half the time with a parent. 
  • Supervised physical custody: A third party must be present for all visits between a parent and their child. This may happen if the parent has psychological or substance abuse problems. If this goes well, the parent may next get partial, unsupervised physical custody. 

The law encourages custody arrangements where both parents are part of a child’s life as long as it is in his or her best interest. 

How Do Child Custody Cases Proceed? 

Child custody disputes can become very emotional and heated. A parent may be angry about the relationship’s breakup and try to punish the other by trying to prevent or limit their child custody rights. 

This can actually hurt your chances of a favorable custody outcome. A parent’s willingness to share custody is often a factor in their favor when a judge decides who should get what kind of custody. The more you want it all to yourself (without justification), the more you harm your case. 

Like all family law disputes, child custody cases are overwhelmingly resolved through negotiation. Some cases take longer to resolve than others, the emotional sparks fly more in some more than others, and sometimes mediation helps the parties reach a resolution.  

But no matter how you cut it, nearly all child custody disputes are solved through negotiations. Chances are yours will, too, so why not give it a good faith, honest effort? 

Why Should You Negotiate Your Child Custody Dispute? 

There are many benefits to this approach: 

  • A court battle can strain even the most positive relationships between parents. Although negotiations can be stressful, they allow parents to maintain open lines of communication, fostering a cooperative environment that is crucial for co-parenting. 
  • Negotiation empowers parents to prioritize their children’s needs. A judge will not have an intimate knowledge of the family dynamics that parents possess. Through negotiation, parents can craft a custody agreement that accommodates their child’s unique needs, preferences, and routines resulting in a more tailored arrangement. 
  • Child custody battles can be emotionally draining for all parties involved, especially the child. Negotiating a settlement outside of the courtroom can mitigate the emotional toll. This approach tends to be less confrontational and reduces the stress for both parents and children. 
  • Legal proceedings can be expensive. Negotiation is usually a more cost-effective option than prolonged court battles. Parents can shorten the process, saving themselves time, energy, grief, and legal fees.

Do not leave it to a judge. It never works out quite how you think it will. Why do more parents negotiate child custody settlements than use litigation to resolve the issue? The benefits outweigh the costs. 

Child Custody Attorneys You Can Trust

Karen Ann Ulmer, P.C. attorneys will work with you to negotiate a resolution to help you achieve your goals, protect your rights, and serve your child’s best interests. If you have questions about custody issues or need legal representation, call us at (215) 752-6200 today. 

Co-parenting after a divorce or separation can be a challenging endeavor. Both parents should consider the child’s best interests, but practical problems and an uncaring or uncooperative spouse can present serious issues. The parents should act like adults and resolve conflicts, but that does not always happen. The situation may end up in court if the parents cannot fix the problem. We help many clients out of our office in Langhorne prepare to co-parent and can also help renegotiate agreements if there are issues. Here are the most common problems:  

Communication Breakdowns 

One of the most frequent co-parenting challenges is a communication breakdown. Misunderstandings, missed messages, and ineffective communication can lead to frustration and conflict. The parties should establish clear lines of communication using methods that work best for both parents. Whether it is phone calls, emails, text messages, or co-parenting apps, communications should always maintain a respectful tone and focus on the child’s best interests. 

Differing Parenting Styles 

Co-parents often sometimes have different parenting styles and values, which may lead to disagreements about the child’s discipline, routines, and rules. The parents should act in good faith and focus on compromise and consistency. Discuss your parenting styles and establish agreed-upon guidelines for raising your children. Flexibility and a willingness to adapt may be necessary for successful co-parenting. 

Scheduling and Logistics 

Coordinating schedules for visitation, school events, extracurricular activities, and holidays can be a logistical nightmare, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts. Shared calendars or co-parenting apps can help the parties keep track of schedules and appointments. Be flexible when accommodating changes and provide the other parent ample notice if adjustments are needed. Plan for holidays and special occasions to avoid last-minute conflicts. 

Emotional Strain 

Co-parenting can be emotionally draining, potentially requiring constant interaction with an ex-partner, bringing up past grievances and hurt feelings. You can seek emotional support from friends, family, or a therapist. Co-parenting is about your children, not your past relationship. Keep conversations child-focused and keep a business-like tone when discussing parenting matters. 

Financial Disputes 

Disagreements about child support, medical expenses, and other financial matters can strain co-parenting relationships. Child support agreements and orders spell out who cares for the child and pays child support. Agreeing to changes can be a slippery slope where one compromise leads to more. You should call our office for advice on handling this situation. 

Residential Relocation 

Depending on the distance, one parent relocating due to work or personal reasons can complicate or wreck your co-parenting arrangement. You should be cooperative if this is a local move. A long-distance move could force you to rewrite your parenting plans. This is also an important issue that justifies getting legal help. 

Parental Alienation 

The other parent may attempt to alienate your child from you from the other parent, damaging the child-parent relationship. This emotional blackmail and criticism of the other parent is intended to turn the child against the targeted parent. If you suspect parental alienation, document any incidents and contact our office. Courts take parental alienation seriously, and legal remedies may be necessary to address this issue and protect the child’s relationship with you. 

The other parent may fail to comply with court-ordered visitation, child support, or other legal obligations. This may happen because they are chronically disorganized, but it is more likely this is an intentional way to punish you for the divorce and protest what they think may be unfair mandates. Like alienation, this is a serious matter. Keep records of what happens. If the other party is not acting in good faith, contact our office so we can take steps to put a stop to this behavior. 

Do Not Put Up With Co-Parenting Problems. Take Action Before They Get Worse  

Depending on your child’s age, you may co-parent for many years. Ignoring problems will only make them worse. To learn more about handling co-parenting issues or to discuss legal representation, call Karen Ann Ulmer, P.C., at (866) 349-4721 or book a consultation online.   

A parent would need to have severe problems for a judge in Pennsylvania to order they should have no contact with their child. A more common situation for parents with a criminal record or severe emotional, psychological, or substance abuse challenges is having supervised visitation (or supervised physical custody) during which the parent and child are never alone. 

What is Supervised Visitation or Custody? 

There are many types of custody in Pennsylvania

  • Legal custody: The right to make major decisions on behalf of the child, including medical, religious, and educational issues. The parents can share it, or one will have legal custody.
  • Physical custody: The physical possession and control of a child. This could be by one parent (sole physical custody), or it can be shared between the parents. A parent with primary physical custody will have the child with them most of the time, while the other parent will have partial physical custody. 

Supervised physical custody means that either through a court order or an agreement reached by the parents, an agency or an adult monitors the interaction between the parent and child during visits. If a judge believes the child will not be safe when alone with the parent, they may order supervised physical custody.  

Why Would This Be Ordered? 

Custody decisions should be based on the child’s best interests, not what one or both parents want. In these cases, the court balances the importance of the parent having time with the child with the child’s well-being and best interests. 

Pennsylvania law presumes it is in the child’s best interests to have a relationship with both parents. But that has its limits. If the parent’s problems are such that they would harm the child or the parent is indifferent to them, a judge could order that the parent have no custodial rights. Common reasons include: 

  • Domestic violence  
  • Child neglect  
  • Substance abuse  
  • Unmanaged or poorly managed mental illness 
  • Criminal acts  

If the parent’s situation is not as severe and he or she wants to be part of the child’s life, a judge may order supervised parenting time rather than revoking a parent’s custody rights.  

How Would Supervised Physical Custody Work?  

A court order may specify that a particular person be present during this supervised time, such as an extended family member or friend trusted by both parents. If there is no such person, or a judge is uncomfortable with that arrangement, they may decide that a qualified professional supervisor must be present. The setting will be safe for the child, whether at the parent’s home or at a location where there is room for these types of visits. 

If you are the parent wanting to limit your child’s time with the other parent, ending custody rights is a drastic step few judges want to take. Unless the other parent is legitimately a danger to your child, you should be open to supervised physical custody. 

If you are a parent facing challenges in your life, you can still seek custody. If you struggle with being with your child alone, accepting supervised visits may be a good choice. In the meantime, you should actively address your problems and take steps to show you will be a responsible parent. 

A custody order can be amended if one parent shows that circumstances have changed. If the supervised parent: 

  • Does not show up, is intoxicated, is still struggling with psychological problems, or says or does inappropriate things during visits, a judge may end their custody rights. 
  • Is under control, appropriately dressed, actively engaged with the child, and appears to be heading in the right direction, a judge may allow future unsupervised visits. 

Supervised physical custody can be a turning point in the child’s relationship with the parent. Which direction it goes depends on how the supervised parent responds. 

Child Custody Lawyers You Can Trust  

Karen Ann Ulmer, P.C. lawyers are skilled in developing compelling legal arguments and evidence that judges need to make wise child custody decisions. If you have questions about supervised visitation or need legal representation, call us at (215) 752-6200 today. 

If you are involved in a custody dispute, there may be at least one child custody evaluation. It is a psychological assessment involving the parents’ living conditions, family dynamics, mental health problems, and other relevant concerns to recommend what is in your child’s best interests.  

Court-ordered evaluations are usually performed if the parents disagree on custody. If one is done fairly and competently, its recommendation may push the parties to settle on terms consistent with its findings. 

Who Will be Interviewed? 

Court-ordered custody evaluations are established by Pennsylvania and New Jersey court rules. The parties can also commission their investigation. A custody evaluator should interview: 

  • The child 
  • The parents 
  • Other people residing in their homes  

They may also speak to teachers or counselors at school and review relevant medical or psychological treatment records. 

What Will be the Basis of the Evaluator’s Findings?  

The evaluator will consider: 

  • The facts 
  • Their understanding of the parties and the situation 
  • The parents’ views 

The ultimate purpose of the assessment is to determine what custody arrangement is in the child’s best interest. The evaluator will consider the factors the court will use when making a decision, including: 

  • The parents’ stability 
  • The child’s relationship with them 
  • A parent’s drug or alcohol abuse 
  • A parent’s physical, mental, and emotional health 
  • A parent’s willingness to encourage their child to continue their relationship with the other parent 

A custody evaluation could take months and cost several thousand dollars. If the parties cannot agree on who will pay for an assessment ordered by the court, a judge may decide for them. 

How Should I Prepare for the Evaluation? 

You, your child, and any other family members interviewed should not see an evaluation as an invasion of privacy or a burden. It is an opportunity to tell your side of the story and address any concerns the other parent has raised. 

There will be a visit to your home, so put yourself in the evaluator’s shoes. What would you look for? Your home should be clean and neat. Any obvious defects or problems with your home should be repaired. Mow your lawn. Dress neatly and comfortably. 

You are not going to court, but you are not going to the gym, either. 

What Should I Say to the Evaluator? 

To be most effective, those interviewed (especially your child) should be open and honest. You will not be considered credible if you are overly critical of the other parent, appear biased, and are found not to be telling the truth. 

You can maximize your ability to tell your story by: 

  • Discussing your child’s parenting history, including both parents’ strengths and weaknesses.
  • Talking about your child, their interests, needs, and any difficulties they have had. 
  • Addressing how your child has changed since you and the other parent separated or the event, if any, that created a perceived need for the evaluation.

You are best served by focusing on your child’s best interests and managing your emotions. Balance stating your legitimate concerns about the other parent while not bad mouthing or bashing them. You should also avoid playing an amateur psychologist by diagnosing them with a condition you think they suffer from. 

What Happens to the Report? 

The findings, including a recommendation, will be in a confidential report to the court that you and your attorney can read. If either party objects to the report, the evaluator can be cross-examined at a trial. If your case does not settle, the judge will probably rely on a court-ordered evaluation when issuing a ruling, but they should be open to fair criticism and legitimate assessments, if any, paid for by the parties. 

Child Custody Attorneys You Can Trust 

Karen Ann Ulmer, P.C. attorneys are skilled in developing the evidence that judges need to make child custody decisions. We will work with you to build a persuasive case to achieve your goals and protect your rights. If you have questions about custody issues or need legal representation, call us at (215) 752-6200 today.

If you have a newborn and are divorcing the child’s father here in Bucks County, PA, chances are good that a court will not allow breastfeeding to prevent a father from spending time with his child. It is just one factor of many that a judge may consider when deciding what is in the best interests of the child and the father’s right to be involved in their child’s life. There must be an extenuating case for the court to rule otherwise.  

The issue has been litigated with mixed results, which makes sense because each case should be decided on its own facts. There are also several factors a court must consider in making a decision. Too much emphasis on a mother’s breastfeeding could be grounds for an appeal.  

Breastfeeding Was Not Enough to Decide A Case 

In a 2013 case, the appeals court overturned the lower court’s ruling in favor of the mother, which largely decided a visitation case on the fact that the child was breastfeeding. The trial court limited the father’s visitation during the child’s first eight months or until the child stopped breastfeeding. 

The appellate court pointed out that before an order is decided, neither parent is presumed to be the primary caregiver, and both have the same burden of showing what they seek is in the child’s best interests. The court stated that the trial court based the decision “almost exclusively on the fact that Child is breastfeeding and the parties’ difficulty communicating with each other.” There was no discussion of the statutory factors. 

A Child’s Medical Need to Breastfeed as a Reason to Rule for the Mother 

In a case where a father appealed the denial of obtaining primary physical custody of his 19-month-old son, breastfeeding was an issue in the mother’s favor because of the child’s health issues. The appeals court stated

“…the Child in this case had relatively unique needs. Child was still breastfeeding and had not taken to the bottle, despite Mother’s efforts to wean Child, and despite her efforts to introduce solid food. It appears the difficulty was due to Child’s digestive issues, including Celiac disease (i.e., the inability to consume gluten), for which Child sees a gastroenterologist.” 

The court also cited other reasons justifying the lower court’s decision, including the child’s other medical needs and the fact that the father appeared to have difficulty caring for a toddler. 

Breastfeeding Must Be Brought Up in Good Faith as a Reason the Court Should Rule in Your Favor 

Whatever your situation, if a mother believes breastfeeding is a valid reason to limit a father’s custody or visitation, there must be strong evidence in her favor. The issues are highlighted in a recent Washington Post article about a Virginia couple. A judge ordered that the father visit the baby four days per week ahead of overnight visits, and the mother was to “make every effort to place the child on a feeding schedule and use a bottle.” She felt this was endangering her child’s health. The father’s attorney, Tara Steinnerd, told the Post she was using breastfeeding as a weapon to try to defeat the father’s visitation claims. 

“Steinnerd said she represents men and women in custody cases but has only represented men when breastfeeding time is litigated. Some mothers may have legitimate claims about breastfeeding that courts can weigh when making decisions about visitation, according to Steinnerd — but, in the cases she has worked on, mothers have been unreasonable, refusing to recognize a father’s need for visitation or refusing to pump.” 

No matter which side of the issue you are on, you will have greater success if you have a solution you can both agree on. Exposure to both parents is usually the best situation for the child.  

If the other parent is being difficult and unreasonable, we will come up with arguments based on the facts and applicable law that we can present to a judge. Breastfeeding may be one of many issues which, on the whole, will shift the decision to you. 

Get the Help You Need From an Attorney You Can Trust 

Child custody and visitation are best kept out of the courtroom and left to those who know the child best, usually the parents. The attorneys at Karen Ann Ulmer, P.C., will negotiate practical custody and visitation solutions with the other parent or their lawyer. If the court is convinced that the arrangement is in “the child’s best interest,” it will generally approve the agreement. 

If negotiations are not successful, what you understand deep in your heart needs to be said simply and concretely to a judge because we have a short period to acquaint a judge with you and your family. Our attorneys are skilled in developing the evidence that judges need to make decisions. We will work to build a solid and persuasive case designed to achieve your goals and protect your rights.

If you and your child’s other parent cannot agree on a custody and visitation plan here in Bucks County, a judge may order a child custody evaluation. It involves a mental health expert, usually a psychologist, who will evaluate your family and recommend a custody/visitation or parenting plan to the court. It is not something to fear, but you should understand and prepare for it.  

What is a Child Custody Evaluation? 

After gathering and evaluating information about your family, the evaluator will recommend a plan to the parents and the court. The parties may have evaluations done; the court will order one with an evaluator of their choice, or both. 

Ideally, you and your ex-spouse will use the recommendation to reach an agreement. If not, the judge can use the evaluation and other evidence to write a custody/visitation order for your family.  

What is the Evaluation Process? 

Not all evaluators use the same process, but there are certain things you should expect in your evaluation. They include: 

  • Two to three interviews with each parent 
  • At least two interviews with each child 
  • Observations of the children with each parent 
  • A review of court filings and other written information 
  • Contact with other sources (therapists, pediatricians, teachers, daycare staff) 
  • A written report recommending custody/visitation rights and schedules addressing the significant concerns raised by the parties 
  • Possible psychological testing or questionnaires about your emotional functioning or parenting style 
  • A visit to each parent’s home 

Be cooperative and facilitate the evaluation the best you can. 

What Should I Tell My Children About This? 

If they do not already know, you should tell your child that there are conflicts between the parents and that they have different views about how much time each should spend with the children. The evaluator is involved to learn more about the family, help them reach a resolution, and suggest ways they can be better parents.  

You should reassure your child that both parents love them and that they will both be part of their lives. You should also tell your kids to bring up any concerns they have, ask questions, and honestly answer those posed by the evaluator. 

How Should I Approach the Evaluation? 

We will discuss it before the evaluation takes place and prepare you for it. You should ask us any questions you have. The evaluator wants to understand your family, its dynamics, and relationships. You should relax as much as possible and be honest. Your job is to talk about yourself and describe the situation as it pertains to what is in your child’s best interests, not to put on a show for the evaluator. 

Be open and honest. If asked, do not be afraid to say negative things about yourself or your parenting skills. But put your situation in context. Tell the evaluator what you learned and how it helped you be a better parent. 

Be open and honest about the other parent. If you just criticize them, the evaluator will not think you are being honest or credible. It is best to be truthful, even if that includes saying positive things about the other parent.  

If things about them concern you, say why, and discuss specific incidents or occurrences that support your feelings. Just accusing the other parent of being too angry or controlling without anything to back it up will not help you. To the best of your memory, give specific reasons why you have certain fears or feelings about the other parent, given that the outcome should reflect your child’s best interests. 

Get the Help You Need From an Attorney You Can Trust

If you are considering a divorce or filing for custody of your child, call our office at (215) 608-1867. A custody evaluation may be part of the process. We will explain it, help you through it, and use the recommendations to help you achieve your goals. We can speak over the phone, via a teleconference, or meet in our Doylestown or Langhorne offices. 

Denying custody is generally viewed as a drastic step but, depending on the circumstances, possibly a justified one. Often these situations involve a parent who cannot care for and make decisions for a child. They might be incapable of caring for themselves due to a severe physical or psychological illness, substance abuse, or involvement in criminal activity. There is a legal presumption that a child should have both parents in their life, but that can be overcome with evidence if it is not in the child’s best interests. 

What is Custody? 

There are different types of child custody. The status of each can be determined by the parents’ agreement (subject to a judge’s approval) or court order: 

  • Legal: This is the ability to make crucial decisions for a child (legal, educational, health, and other issues impacting their fundamental well-being). Legal custody is either shared or one parent has it. It is not split based on the subject to be decided, such as one parent deciding on issues related to education while the other is in charge of healthcare. 
  • Physical: The right to have your child live with or spend time with you. This could include sole, primary (the child lives primarily with you), shared, or partial custody. 

Visitation allows a parent to spend time with a child but not have legal or physical custody. Visiting can be supervised by a third party if a parent is especially troubled. It must be an extreme situation for a judge to deny child custody and visitation to a parent. A parent unable or unwilling to support a child may voluntarily give up these rights. 

How Does a Court Decide Who Should Get What Kind of Custody? 

When deciding child custody, a court determines what is in “the best interest of the child” and creates an order to accomplish that. There is a presumption both parents should share legal custody as long as both are considered competent caregivers. 

What Are Some Reasons a Parent Should Not Have Child Custody? 

This issue can arise during an initial custody dispute or after a custody order goes into effect. If conditions change after the order is in place and you fear for your child’s well-being, you can request the court modify the order, or if it is an emergency, you can file a petition for special relief. 

If you can show a risk of imminent harm to your child, issues that may persuade a judge to grant you sole physical and legal custody include: 

  • Substance abuse: Simply having this problem may not be enough to deprive a parent of custody rights. If this is an issue, both parents may face drug tests, and if one tests positive, they will probably be required to undergo periodic testing and treatment. 
  • Serious, untreated mental health problems: If the parent can show they are being treated and following their healthcare provider’s instructions, they may maintain custody. If they refuse to be seen for a possible psychological issue and or will not accept treatment, they risk losing custody.
  • Domestic violence: If a parent’s history of abuse is documented with medical or psychological records, police reports, criminal convictions, or child welfare reports, the parent may lose custody rights. These rights may be regained if they show they are in treatment and no longer engage in these episodes. 
  • Debilitating physical disabilities: If your spouse is severely disabled and that seriously affects them physically and mentally, they may be denied custody.

Like every legal issue, evidence is critical. No matter the problem, it must be documented with notes, witness testimony, photos, and videos. The more mature your child is, the more impact their testimony will have. You should keep evidence securely away from the other parent and your children, physically and or electronically. 

Records from law enforcement and healthcare professionals are also critical. Both sides may hire experts to give their opinions if the issue is physical or psychological. The same may be true of the alleged emotional or psychological impacts on your child.  

False Claims Could Backfire 

If you make allegations but lack evidence to support your claims, the other parent could accuse you of abusing your child by needlessly putting them through the dispute and abusing the court process. As a result, your ability to maintain custody could be challenged. 

The lawyers at Karen Ann Ulmer, P.C., can protect you and your children if the other parent is unfit to be in their lives or you are facing baseless claims that you should not have custody. Contact us today to see how we can help.