For many, the commencement of a custody litigation in Philadelphia County begins with the filing of a pro-se (Latin for “on one’s own behalf”) complaint for custody or petition to modify an existing custody order. This is because the format of these filings is completed pursuant to a Court Rule consisting of a relatively simple and straight-forward form. However, after filing, it is common for pro-se litigants to engage the services of a knowledgeable family lawyer to assist in the actual litigation of the case.
In Philadelphia County, after initiating the case, the parties are listed for a Custody Master’s hearing or conference before one of the Court-approved Masters. Philadelphia County’s Custody Masters are very knowledgeable and can become vital cogs towards the revolution in your case. However, should litigation become necessary, it is imperative to understand what is important to the Master when deciding your case as well as how your case will proceed. Therefore, appearing unrepresented may become a very big mistake.
Our legislature has delineated the factors for custody which can be viewed here and the court is required to address and consider each and every one of the factors before making a decision on your case. However, Custody Masters have limited justification and if a significant change to your current custody order is requested, the matter will simply be conferenced to determine if an agreement can be reached and if not, a custody hearing or trial will be scheduled before a Judge. Whether or not counsel is involved will directly determine how your case is scheduled. What do I mean?
Depending on the relief sought, the Master will schedule either a conference or hearing. Generally, record hearings are reserved for complaints/petitions to modify seeking partial physical custody, visitation and/or supervised visitation. Whereas, conferences are typically held when the initial complaint seeks primary physical custody, sole physical custody, and sole legal custody, or when a petition to modify would result in a complete change in the primary custodial parent/party.
If a conference is held, the master will ensure that both parties are spending time with the children pending a trial and/or hearing before a Judge. If not, the Master may issue an interim order if he/she believes a compelling situation exists.
If the Master is unable to resolve your case, the matter will be listed for a hearing and/or trial date before one of the county’s elected Family Court Judges. The difference between a custody hearing and trial is simply the amount of time allotted to your case. It is always recommended that you request a trial date. In addition, it is very common for our office to file a request for a protracted or semi-protracted trial date, which would also lead to more time being available to litigate your custody case.
If you have recently filed for custody and you would like to discuss the benefits of having representation, please contact my office for an initial case consultation today.