If I Drop a PFA, Is the Custody in Effect?
By Beverly Bird
If, at any time, you feel an individual is threatening your life, health or well-being, you have the right to seek a restraining order from the court to keep him away from you. Some states refer to these orders as protection from abuse orders, or PFAs. Laws governing them vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but are similar procedurally. Judges often include custody provisions in PFAs when children are involved in abusive relationships.
Obtaining a PFA
If your spouse threatens or hurts you, you can ask the court for a PFA order to limit or eliminate his contact with you. If the court agrees you need protection, the order goes into effect immediately. However, it’s usually temporary, covering a period of one to two weeks. This is an “ex parte” order, meaning you went to the courthouse, applied for it and received it without any notice to your spouse. Thus, he wasn't able to contest it. When you receive this temporary order, the court serves it on your spouse, instructing him to appear in court at a later date. The judge will hear his side of the story at this hearing, as well as yours, and determine whether to make your PFA permanent. However, in many jurisdictions, permanent does not mean forever. It’s long term, for a period of several years, but expires eventually. If your spouse is still a threat to you when this occurs, you can go back to court to extend the PFA’s term or ask the court for a new one.
If you have children, you can ask the judge to give you temporary custody at your ex parte hearing. This arrangement lasts for the next several weeks, until your hearing for a permanent PFA. At the hearing, you can ask the judge to incorporate custody terms into your permanent PFA. If you receive a permanent PFA at the hearing, it means the judge believed your allegations of domestic violence. Therefore, it’s unlikely that he would give custody of your children to your spouse. However, the judge will probably include some terms for visitation in the PFA order, with accommodations for the abuse. Depending on the severity of the abuse, a judge might order supervised visitation by a third party to protect your children or your spouse may be prohibited from picking them up from your home, which would mean coming in contact with you in a non-public location.
Dismissing the Order
Because the custody terms are part of your PFA, they end when and if your PFA ends. If your PFA expires and you do nothing to renew it, all provisions the judge included in it cease to exist when the order does. The same thing occurs if you dismiss or drop your PFA. The order becomes void so its terms are no longer enforceable.
Even permanent PFAs are somewhat temporary in nature so you might not want to rely on one as your long-term custody order. While your PFA is in effect, you can file for divorce or a complaint for custody. In both cases, a judge will order a custody arrangement that can only be undone when and if your spouse can prove a change of circumstances, such as you are no longer a fit parent or your residence is no longer a suitable home for your children. Such a custody order would “survive” your PFA, remaining in effect even if you drop the PFA or if it expires.
- Pine Tree Legal Assistance: Protection From Abuse – How the Law Works in Maine
- WomensLaw.org: Know the Laws – Pennsylvania Protection From Abuse Order (PFA)
- Womans Divorce: Questions About Restraining Orders
- Laural Legal Services: General Protection From Abuse Information
- LawFirms.com: Special Issues With Child Custody
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.