How To Determining The Child's Best Interests In A PA Divorce
A long set of factors will be considered by the judge in every case.
A challenging aspect of any custody determination in Pennsylvania is that it must be based on the "best interests" of the child. This standard is mandated in statute section 5328 and further explained by many cases. The statute also provides a laundry list of 16 factors a judge should consider, including a final, catch-all of "Any other relevant factor."
For a parent with a custody issue, it may be disappointing to find that there is no hard, fast rule that explicitly describes the best interest standard. In essence, the standard is different in every case. Working through each of the 16 statutorily enumerated factors will come out differently for every case, and could even lead to a different result for individual children of the same couple.
Same factors, different results
For instance, in a family with multiple children, where two of the children are teenage and the third is preschool, various factors may lead a judge to different conclusions. It could even lead to a case where physical custody varies by child.
The fourth factor, "The need for stability and continuity in the child's education, family life and community life," could possibly lead to a disparate result for a freshman in high school with significant extracurricular activities involving sport or theater than for a preschool age child. Or it could lead to the same.
Factors that look at the personal safety of the children rank high and warrant special attention by the judge, as you would expect. It clearly could never be in the child's best interest to place them in a custody arrangement that would threaten their personal safety with physical or mental abuse.
Another factor with great variability could be the seventh, "The well-reasoned preference of the child, based on the child's maturity and judgment." An older child may have a stronger bond with one of the parents and may be of sufficient maturity and able to articulate to the court their reasons for that preference.
A far younger child may be found by the court to be too immature and too susceptible to manipulation by a parent to allow their opinion to carry similar weight. However, where the line is drawn based on "maturity and judgment" will depend heavily on the child.
How does the judge decide? Your attorney can help
That is a good question. Part of aggressive advocacy by your attorney is the crafting of a custody request that addresses as many factors as are relevant in your situation and doing so in such a manner as to make it easy for the judge to agree with your conclusion.
This means you want a well-argued discussion of these factors with sufficient factual evidence to support each. Name-calling or hyperbole often serves here only to highlight weaknesses in your argument.
The better presented and argued your explication of the statutory factors is, the stronger your case will be and the more likely it is that a judge will rule favorably for your side. Factually demonstrating how your custody arrangement serves the best interests of your child or children is the strongest way to protect those best interests.