What Everyone Should Know About Child Custody & Child Support Procedure in the Philadelphia Family Court, Domestic Relations Branch
Whether a family law case centers around the filing of a divorce or whether parties have never married, many couples find themselves having their first experiences with the court system by pursuing their rights to child custody or child support.
In Philadelphia, such matters are generally handled by the Domestic Relations Branch of the Family Court located at 34 S. 11th Street, Philadelphia, PA. The statistics regarding attorney and non attorney, pro se, cases in the Domestic Relations Branch reveal that most people choose to go it alone – just by going to court to initiate their action(s) by filing a petition with the establishment unit of the Domestic Relations Branch. From the beginning of a Custody or a Support matter, a basic understanding of the procedure(s) followed by the Court is invaluable. The following is a brief summary of the procedure followed in Child Custody and Child Support matters in the Domestic Relations Branch of the Family Court. Consulting the services of an attorney is obviously the best course of action before going to court, and nothing in this article should be construed as specific legal advice.
A Child Custody case typically begins with the filing of a Complaint for Custody by a parent or Grandparent. If a case already exists, a party may find themselves going to court on a Petition for Modification of a Custody Order or a petition for Contempt. At the moment a complaint or petition is filed, the case begins to move through the system.
The first listing of a custody complaint or petition will be a conference or hearing scheduled before a court appointed Master. A Court Master is a full-time employee of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania and may or may not be an attorney. At this stage, the parties will be required to attend the Master’s Conference or hearing without the child or children present. When special circumstances exist, children may be permitted to attend a master’s level proceeding, such as when only the child can provide information that is necessary to the case.
At the Master’s level a few different things can happen in a Child Custody case. The Master may either; (1) ask the parties to enter into a final or temporary agreement; (2) enter an Interim Order pending a final determination by a judge; or (3) simply schedule a case before a judge. Because of the volume of cases in the Family Court system, it can take many months from filing a petition or complaint to the first case listing and then many more months before you get to a hearing before a judge. For this reason, reaching agreements and mediating basic disputes is normally the focus at the Master’s level.
If your case cannot be concluded at the Master’s level, it will be scheduled before a judge. The complexity of the issues in your case, (the number of witnesses to be called, whether there will be testimony of expert witnesses, whether the parties are both represented by counsel) will determine “how” your case is listed before a judge and how much time will be given for the trial.
Hearing: If your case is listed as a “Hearing” before a judge, your case will generally be placed on a list with 8 - 10 cases, all of which will be heard in a morning or afternoon listing. Typically these are non-complex cases where an attorney is not listed for both parties and/or where no witnesses other than the parties will be heard. These are hearings of very limited duration in the range of 15 – 20 minutes per hearing.
Trial: If your case is listed as a “Trial,” it will generally be placed on a morning or afternoon list with 3 or 4 other cases. Cases are listed as trials when more complex issues, documents or witnesses to be introduced and/or both parties are represented by counsel. Such cases generally take more time for the judge to hear and to render a decision.
Semi- Protracted or Protracted listing: If your case is expected to take a half day or more, parties are required to file a motion with the court to be listed for a “Semi- Protracted,” or ½ day trial or for a “Protracted” listing of one whole day or more.
Child Custody cases cannot be permitted to take months to move through the system when emergency issues or time sensitive issues exist, or worse, could result in some harm to a child. In these circumstances, procedures do exist to have your matter heard on the same day as you file your Petition or on an expedited basis. Only the court can decide whether your case presents an emergency or presents issues that should be heard before the regular listing.
Emergency Child Custody Cases: If a party can demonstrate that something has just occurred or will occur in the immediate future that places a child in physical danger, the Court may decide to hear your case immediately or schedule a hearing within fourteen (14) days of the filing of an Emergency Custody Petition. A party does not have to allege or prove bodily harm, and the physical danger that is alleged does not have to be considered life threatening. Relocation with the child to another state alone is not considered an emergency.
Expedited Relief: In many non- emergency cases, time sensitive issues or scheduling disputes may exist such that a party may be prejudiced in exercising their Child custody rights by having to wait until the next scheduled hearing. In these cases, the court may schedule a hearing within a month of the request for such a hearing and can grant Expedited Relief to a party to “fix” a specific issue or problem until the parties can go to their regular listing before a master or a Judge. Issues that may entitle a party to Expedited Relief are: (1) when a party is being prevented from seeing or visiting with their child; (2) when one party unilaterally changes the schedule of custody times; (3) when vacation or holiday custody planning is in dispute and the next regular hearing will occur after the vacation or holiday; or (4) any other reason the Court feels entitles a party to Expedited Relief. Relocation with the child to another state is not a valid basis for Expedited Relief.
Relocation with the Child to Another State: If a party having primary physical custody wishes to relocate to a different state or jurisdiction, a specialized petition must be filed with the Court and a hearing specifically tailored to relocation with a child will be scheduled. The hearing will generally be scheduled sooner than regular custody listings.
Contempt for not following a Custody Order: If a Custody Order has already been entered in a case, and it can be shown that one of the parties is willfully not following the terms of the order, then the other party may file a specialized petition in Family Court seeking to hold the non complying party in Contempt of Court for not following the Order. A party held in contempt may face penalties ranging from fines to incarceration. A Petition for Contempt filed by a party will normally be listed first before a Master who will write a report which will be available to the Judge at a subsequent hearing.
As in Child Custody cases, a Child Support matter begins with the filing of a Complaint for Support by a parent, guardian or individual who has primary physical custody of a child. As long as the Defendant in the matter lives in Philadelphia, then a party may begin a Child support Case in Philadelphia. If a case already exists, a party may have to go to court on a Petition for Modification of Support or a petition for Contempt. Should a party live out of state and be required to pay support, a special unit in the Domestic Relations Branch which handles “Interstate Cases” will process a case.
When a Complaint for support is filed, the case is immediately scheduled for a Pre-Trial Conference before a conference officer who is a full-time employee of the court. The “Conference Officer” is not a lawyer and has no authority to decide disputed issues which may exist in a support case. Typically, all the Conference Officer will do is receive and analyze income information and advise the parties of the amount of their respective child support obligation, based on statute. An Interim Order or agreement will be processed and a wage attachment for the party required to pay support will be sent to that party’s employer.
At the Pre-trial Conference, parties may: (1) be scheduled for paternity testing with the child; (2) be asked to enter a child support agreement and begin paying after being advised of the support obligation; and/or (3) be scheduled for a second listing of the case before a Court appointed Master. At the Pre-Trial Conference level all parties should have all income and tax information with them as well as all documents proving expenses that they incur for the child. Typical includable expenses are: day care or after school care, out of pocket medical expenses and orthodontics, and expenses for extra curricular activities.
If an Agreement is not made at the Pre-Trial Conference, the parties will be scheduled to appear before a Master who will make findings of fact and conclusions of law and has the authority to enter an Order from which an appeal (an Exception) may be taken. A Support Master is an attorney who is a full-time employee of the court. At a Master’s Hearing all documents and evidence must be presented or they cannot be considered when making the Support order and cannot be a basis for an appeal. The Support Master hearing is the equivalent of the trial in Child support cases in Philadelphia.
Generally, judges in Philadelphia do not hear Child Support Matters unless they proceed to the judge as an Exception to a Master’s Proposed Order of Support (an appeal from the Master’s decision) or in connection with a Contempt of Support Hearing (when a party is not paying as ordered).