Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania
County of Allegheny
Child Custody | Glossary of Terms

Custody:  The legal right to keep, control, guard, care for, and preserve a child (Pa. R.C.P. 1915.1). If a person is filing for custody, s/he is asking the court to formally acknowledge that s/he is the parent or acting as the parent of a child. This person is asking the court to make a custody determination.

Custody Determination:  A court decision and court order providing for the custody of a child. This term does NOT include a decision relating to child support or any other monetary obligation of any person (23 Pa. C.S.A. 5343). There are two main types of custody that can be requested/determined, physical custody and legal custody.

Physical Custody:  Physical custody can be defined as actual physical possession and control of a child. There are several different types of physical custody and they include:

  1. Confirmation of Custody:  A confirmation of custody complaint is a request to the Court to legalize the current custodial arrangement. These requests are filed in the form of a motion to a judge (Pro Se Motions). Any party, who is currently the caretaker of the child(ren), may seek confirmation of his/her legal and/or physical custody of any child through motions court, providing the following are true: the plaintiff is the main custodian of the child(ren) and the child(ren) is/are in the plaintiff’s care, there is no current custody order, the other party agrees with this request OR is not involved in the child(ren)’s daily life/lives, decision-making, and does not see the child(ren) regularly AND/OR the other party is incarcerated or incapacitated.
  2. Primary custody:  Also known as full custody; a request to have physical custody of the child(ren) for all or a majority of the time. (Primary Custody Form)
  3. Shared Custody:  Shared custody is defined as shared legal or shared physical custody, or both, of a child in such a way to assure the child of frequent and continuing contact, including physical access, to both parents (Pa. R.C.P. 1915.1). Generally, this means that both parents have time with the child that is equal or close to equal. For example, parents may alternate weeks with the child or split the weeks and alternate the weekends. (Shared Custody Form)
  4. Partial custody:  Partial physical custody: Partial custody is defined as the right to take possession of a child away from the custodian for a certain period of time (Pa. R.C.P. 1915.1). You may choose to file for this if you agree with the other parent having primary custody of the child(ren). Examples of partial custody schedules can include, but are not limited to, the following: every other weekend from Friday through Sunday or each Sunday from 12pm-8pm. (Partial Custody Form)
  5. Sole physical custody:  The right of one individual to have exclusive physical custody of the child (Pa.R.C.P. 1915.1).
  6. Supervised partial physical custody:  This means that a party’s custodial time with the child(ren) is supervised by an agency, parent, or adult designated by the Court.

Visitation is defined as the right to visit a child, but does not include the right to remove the child from the custodial parent’s control (Pa. R.C.P. 1915.1). This usually refers to small periods of custody (for example, a few hours at a time) and can be either supervised or unsupervised. Supervised custody requires that the other parent, or a third party, to be present during time with the child. (Partial Custody/Visitation Form)

You may also raise a request to change or enforce a custody order by filing:

  1. Petition for Modification:  A petition for modification is defined as a request to change the terms of the current custody order. In order to file this petition, a final custody order must have been issued. Included in the petition to modify should be the reason for why a change in custody is needed. (Modification Form)
  2. Petition for Enforcement:  A petition for enforcement can be filed if you feel that the other party has willfully failed to follow the current custody order in some way (for example, failing to return the child or failure to provide the child for a period of custody). (Enforcement Form)

Legal Custody:  Legal custody can be defined as the legal right to make major decisions affecting the best interests of a minor child, including, but not limited to, medical, religious, and educational decisions. Examples of these decisions can include, but are not limited to, whether the child attends private or public school, what religion the child will be exposed to, or if the child should enter therapy. Parents may share legal custody, meaning that they must both agree on these major decisions together. One parent may have primary legal custody, which places all of the decision-making power with one parent. A request for either primary or shared legal custody may be included in any complaint filed and can also be the subject of a petition to modify or to enforce.

Plaintiff/Petitioner:  Party who brings a custody action to the Court.

Defendant/Respondent:  Party against whom the custody action is filed.

Jurisdiction:  A geographic area within which a judge may enter an order. The child’s home county determines jurisdiction in custody matters.

Home county:  The county in which the child immediately preceding the time involved, lived with the child’s parents, a parent, or person acting as a parent, or in an institution for at least six consecutive months, and in the case of a child less than six months old, the county in which the child lived from birth with any of the persons mentioned (Pa. R.C.P. 1915.1).

Pro se:  Representing yourself in a court proceeding without the assistance of an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney and feel that you need legal advice or help in preparing motions or custody pleadings, you may contact the Lawyer Referral Service at 412-261-5555 or click here for information on the court’s pro se motions litigant assistance program.