What Are a Father’s Child Custody Rights?

Father and Child

Fathers have Custody Rights Too

Fathers have custody rights in Pennsylvania.

Myth: In Pennsylvania, mothers have an advantage in child custody cases.

An understanding of a bit of Pennsylvania’s legal history explains the origins of this myth.  As far back as the early 1800s, case law in Pennsylvania recognized the “tender years doctrine.”  The tender years doctrine essentially carved out a legal presumption that children belong in the custody of their mothers, especially in their early years.  The doctrine was ruled unconstitutional in Pennsylvania almost 40 years ago, in 1977.  However, the bias of the tender years doctrine lived on in practice, and it took some time before fathers routinely started getting treated fairly in child custody cases.

Fact: Pennsylvania’s child custody law is gender-neutral.

The standard for determining where a child should live after his parents split is the “best interests standard.”  A Pennsylvania court will consider 16 distinct factors to determine what arrangement would suit the child’s best interests.  In 2011, Pennsylvania’s child custody law was revised, and now the law specifically states that neither parent shall receive preference based on gender.  The bottom line is that the law values a father’s relationship with his child as highly as it values the mother’s relationship with her child.

In most cases, parents will share legal custody of their child; this means that the parents have equal authority to make decisions about their child’s well-being, health, education, and religious upbringing. What most parents fight over is physical custody, i.e., how much time each gets to spend with the child.  While it used to be common that fathers’ custodial time was limited to every other weekend, this is no longer the case.  More and more frequently, the courts are awarding fathers significantly expanded partial custody, shared physical custody, or even primary custody of their children.  The circumstances of each case are unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to child custody.

Whether you are seeking primary, shared or partial physical custody of your children, please call us at (717) 883-5671 or email FamilyLaw@jsdc.com to discuss your rights.  We would be happy to meet with you in either our Hershey or our Mechanicsburg office.


It should be noted that in Pennsylvania, a father’s custody rights begin upon his child’s birth.  Although Olympian Bode Miller’s case (which we blogged about here) has raised the question of a father’s custody rights while the child is in utero, Pennsylvania has not legally recognized a father’s rights prior to the birth of the child.  If the subject interests you, navigate to this article on Babble and this opinion piece by Slate’s Emily Bazelon.  The opinions expressed therein belong to the authors and are not the opinions of Attorney Smith and/or Attorney Miloszewski.   Nevertheless, enjoy the read.

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