When parents separate, they must determine the appropriate custody arrangements for their children. It is not essential that the parties immediately proceed through the Court system and, in fact, many parents establish custody arrangements for their children based upon informal agreements.
However, if the parties cannot agree on the appropriate custody arrangement or, if they want the Court to enter an Order regarding custody of their children, the first step is to file a custody complaint with the Family Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County. The custody complaint can either be filed by an attorney or individually. The Rules are very specific about what information must be in a Custody Complaint.
In Erie County if the parties have children under the age of 18, both parents must attend a four-hour seminar called "Children Cope With Divorce". The seminar is held at Family Services, 5100 Peach Street, Erie, Pennsylvania. Some of the program's objectives include exploring the experiences of separation and divorce from the child's perspective, sharing specific skills parents can use to support a child's adjustment and suggestions on how to avoid placing the child in a no-win situation with the parents. Attendance at the Children Cope With Divorce seminar is mandatory if you are involved in a divorce or custody proceeding.
Once the custody complaint has been drafted, it must be submitted along with four copies to the Office of Custody Conciliation which is located in the basement of the Erie County Court House. The office is open from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. M-F, but is closed from noon until 1:30 p.m. Complaints are not accepted after 4:00 p.m. The Office of Custody Conciliation has a custody brochure available to assist in the preparation of the Custody Complaint.
The Custody Office will schedule an Intake Conference, usually within 45 days after the date the Complaint is filed.
Once the hearing has been scheduled, the original and copies must be taken to the Prothonotary's Office which in on the first floor of the Court House. There is a filing fee. The Prothonotary will keep the original custody complaint. One copy must be returned to the Custody Office and two certified copies must be served on the defendant very soon after they are filed. One must be sent to the Defendant by certified mail, restricted delivery and one by regular mail. In addition, service can be by Sheriff or Constable. Proof of Service must be filed with the Prothonotary.
An Intake Conference will be scheduled after both parties have completed the Children Cope With Divorce seminar. The Intake Conference is an informal meeting and is not a hearing. No evidence or testimony is presented and the children are not interviewed. The Intake Conference is an opportunity for both parents to discuss what they believe is in the best interest of the children. Areas of agreement and disagreement are identified and discussed.
If both parties are in agreement, a custody agreement will be formalized into an Order of Court and signed by the Family Court Judge. If the parties cannot reach an agreement on custody matters at the Intake Conference, usually a Temporary Order will be issued and a Conciliation Conference will be scheduled.
The objective of the Conciliation Conference is to foster agreement between the parties in such a way that they are committed to a custody arrangement which will be entered as an Order of Court. If no agreement is reached at the Custody Conciliation Conference, the Custody Conciliator will prepare a Recommended Order and forward it to the Court. Both parties must follow this Order. If either party objects to the Recommended Order issued by the Custody Conciliator, that party must file a Request for Adversarial Hearing within 10 days from the date they receive the Court Order in the mail. Once a Request for Adversarial Hearing is filed in a timely manner, the custody issue will be scheduled for trial by the Family Court Judge. The Family Court Judge will schedule a trial date, and may also set a date for a pre-trial conference. Pending trial, the Court Order must be followed. 10/11
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