Understanding Legal Custody in Pennsylvania

September 26, 2023 | By Adam Tanker

Child custody cases often involve some of the most important, sensitive, and emotionally charged issues that can be found in family law. Pennsylvania’s legal and physical custody laws are complex and difficult to navigate. 

In Pennsylvania, there are two forms of child custody that parents who are divorced or separated can pursue: physical custody and legal custody.

1. Physical Custody

Physical custody relates to where the child resides, which parent is responsible for the day-to-day needs of the child and ensuring the child is safe, sheltered, and fed.  Depending on the situation, a parent may have:

  • sole physical custody;
  • primary physical custody, or
  • shared physical custody.

2. Legal Custody

Legal custody relates to major decisions that must be made for the child throughout his or her life. Legal custody can be awarded solely to one parent or shared equally between the parents. A parent with sole legal custody has exclusive control regarding major life decisions on behalf of the child and the other parent may not be entitled to even see the child’s medical or school records.

  • Educational decisions

One important area of legal custody involves educational decisions. Whether the child will be home-schooled, or attend public, parochial or private school or whether an individualized educational plan should be pursued are extremely important decisions.  Absent an extreme circumstance, the courts believe that both parents should have equal input, judgment, and control over the issues. 

  • Decisions relating to religious matters, medical needs, extra-curricular activities

Additional major decisions relating to religious matters (Bar Mitzvah or Baptism), medical needs (vaccinations, non-emergent procedures, birth control), and extra-curricular activities (is football too dangerous/ too expensive, are there to many activities) are also considered important legal custody issues, and courts strive to have both parents involved in the decision-making process. 

Therefore, unless one parent demonstrates an extreme inability to parent for a variety of different reasons, legal custody decisions are normally shared, with both parents having equal say in the issue being decided. 

If a disagreement arises, such as one parent wanting the child to attend Montessori school and one parent wanting the child to attend public school, court involvement may be necessary.  Ultimately, the Court may award one party sole educational legal custody after analyzing what is in the best interest of the child. Likewise, if one parent obstructs medical treatment for the child by canceling doctors’ appointments or refusing to consent to a recommended medical treatment, the Court has the power to grant one party sole medical legal custody, enabling that parent to take whatever medical decisions they deem necessary under the circumstances.

If you find yourself involved in a child custody matter, you should consider consulting with an Obermayer attorney to fully understand your legal custody rights.

The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel, and should not be relied on as such. For legal advice or answers to specific questions, please contact one of our attorneys.

About the Authors

Adam Tanker


Doylestown Family Law Litigation Attorney Adam is a highly regarded and seasoned family law litigation attorney serving the greater Doylestown, PA area.  His practice includes prenuptial agreements, custody, domestic abuse and protection...

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