Pennsylvania’s Newly Proposed Custody Bill: What to Know
In May 2019, a new House Bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania General Assembly which, if passed, would radically shift how Pennsylvania Family Courts make determinations in child custody cases. Sponsored by Rep. Susan C. Helm (Dauphin/Lebanon Co.), House Bill 1397 would represent a departure from the current sixteen-factor analysis that PA Courts use in making custody determinations, instead favoring a rebuttable presumption that equal parenting time be awarded to each parent.
In her Memorandum in support of HB 1397, Representative Helm has stated, “Custody plans that allow children to see one of their parents – typically their father – only one day a week and every other weekend undermine this fundamental relationship during the child’s crucial development years. Research shows that, except in rare cases, children do best if both parents share in the day-to-day responsibilities of raising children. Children with two actively involved parents do better in school, are less likely to suffer abuse or neglect, and are less likely to become involved with drugs and other high-risk behaviors. Equally shared parenting is also linked to higher rates of voluntary child support compliance and lower rates of parental alienation.”
If passed, the most drastic change brought about by HB 1397 would be the eradication of the concepts of “primary” and “partial” physical custody currently existing under Pennsylvania Code. Instead, HB 1397 would implement “A presumption, rebuttable by clear and convincing evidence that shared physical and legal custody and equal parenting time is in the best interest of the child.” HB 1397 further provides, “If a deviation from equal parenting time is warranted, the court shall order a parenting time schedule that maximizes the time each parent has with the child, to the extent consistent with the child’s best interest.” Proponents of the bill argue that a “50/50” presumption would reduce the amount of custody cases that come before the Courts and would better serve a child’s need to have both parents actively involved in their day to day lives.
Critics of HB 1397 argue that the existing laws already support shared parenting time, provided of course that to do so will serve the child’s best interest. Under the current sixteen-factor analysis approach, PA Courts have wide flexibility in crafting a custody schedule that best suits families on a case by case basis. In many instances, that custody schedule does result in “shared” parenting time or something close to it. To implement a statutory presumption favoring 50/50 custody, critics argue, will “hamstring” PA Judges and Masters and curb the autonomy they currently have in crafting a custodial schedule that best suits the needs of a child in light of all of the circumstances and evidence presented at trial. In addition, critics oh HB 1397 argue that the language of the statute is geared towards the rights of parents rather than the best interest of the child.
Pennsylvania is not alone in exploring the pros and cons of a 50/50 custody presumption. As this conversation grows nationwide, similar questions emerge across state lines: Would such a presumption promote fairness while reducing stressors and tensions typically attendant to protracted custody litigation? And if so, at what cost?
To learn more about the ever evolving landscape of custody laws in Pennsylvania, call us at (610) 892 3877 and schedule a consultation with one of our experienced family law attorneys.