Appealing a Custody Order

Close up on of a gavel resting on a sound block while a judge signs papers in the background.

What do you do when a judge gets the custody decision wrong? How can you appeal a bad decision that is going to hurt your children or your family? Under Pennsylvania law there are typically two types of appeals that you take from custody orders.

Two Types of Appeals

The first is when a decision was made by a custody master. A “master” is a hearing officer who makes a determination that is essentially a recommendation to the judge. Depending on what county you are in, you may be able to appeal this decision to a judge of the Court of Common Pleas. You usually have 20 or 30 days to appeal this determination—but check local rules to be sure. This appeal involves asking a judge to take a second look. This review is done de novo, which means that the judge makes the determination all over again as if the master had not already ruled.

The second type of appeal is when the judge has made the decision after a trial. The appeal goes from the Court of Common Pleas to a new court altogether—the Superior Court. This is a much more difficult appeal to take because it requires showing to a higher court that the judge actually made an abuse of discretion. The judge is given an incredible amount of latitude in making his or her decision and usually is not overturned by appellate courts. Appellate courts (that is, the courts that hear appeals) tend to side with the decision of the judge below unless very good grounds for reversal can be demonstrated.

Reasons to Bring an Appeal

There are a number of reasons to bring an appeal. One is when the decision is a violation of the law. This is where a judge intentionally misapplies factors and disregards important evidence, or otherwise makes a bad decision that is based on the law. In such cases, there may be a strong appeal. The second way that an appeal can be brought is where the judge made a bad ruling at trial. Grounds for a redetermination on appeal can include:

  • Considering evidence that is illegal,
  • Not considering evidence that they are required to,
  • Disallowing an expert, or
  • Allowing testimony that was not legal.

Third, and finally, a decision can be appealed on the basis that what was done is not in the best interest of the child. Where there has been an abuse of the court’s discretion, and where the judge’s decision is one that cannot be supported by the evidence, as viewed by a rational fact finder, an appellate court may consider reversing a decision by the trial court.

In all these cases, appeals are difficult to win. It is important to get a good outcome in the custody trial in the first place. If you have lost trial and want to appeal, call the attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm so we can discuss how to appeal your custody decision.