The task of determining child custody can arguably be the most stressful and emotionally taxing component of any divorce or separation. We all want what's best for our kids, but at the same time, parents may be uncertain of exactly how to achieve that goal--and when emotions are running high, it can be difficult to keep perspective, especially when the split is not amicable.
In Bergen County, NJ, parents are urged to decide on an acceptable child custody agreement on their own--but if they can't do so amicably, the court must step in. And while the court's focus is always on the child's best interests, the judge's decision can still be less than ideal for you as a parent--especially if you don't have skilled legal counsel in your corner.
Given the paramount importance of your child's well-being and the potential risk to your rights, engaging an experienced family law attorney in Bergen County can significantly improve your chances of achieving a favorable outcome. The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team has years of experience hammering out child custody agreements in Bergen County. You can reach us online or call us at (888) 535-3686 to discuss your case.
Understanding Child Custody in New Jersey
New Jersey's child custody laws detail the court's authority in determining custody, parental rights, forfeiture policies, custody orders, and more. In all custody-related matters, the court's primary focus is to make decisions that prioritize the child's best interests.
Categories of Child Custody in New Jersey
In New Jersey, the question of child custody involves determining two different realms of custody: physical custody and legal custody.
Physical custody relates to the child's living arrangements and day-to-day care. The parent awarded physical custody will cater to the child's daily needs until the child turns 18.
Legal custody gives the parent the right to make important decisions related to the child's upbringing--for example, their education, medical care, religious instruction, etc.
Options for Joint or Sole Custody
Both physical and legal custody can be granted jointly to both parents or solely to one parent.
Joint custody entails shared parenting responsibilities, including:
- Joint physical custody: Both parents share the duty of providing for the child's physical needs, with the child splitting their time living with each parent.
- Joint legal custody: Both parents share the responsibility of making crucial decisions for the child.
Joint custody does not necessarily mean an equal split of time but signifies that the child has the right to live with both parents. The specific division of time for each household is determined by what is in the child's best interests. It's also possible for one parent to have full-time physical custody while sharing legal custody with the other parent.
Sole custody indicates that only one parent is granted custody of the child. This arrangement may be the best option if circumstances exist that could complicate joint custody.
Sole physical custody: The child lives with the custodial parent full-time. The non-custodial parent is typically granted visitation rights unless there are severe issues like abuse or neglect.
Sole legal custody: The custodial parent has exclusive rights to make important decisions about the child's upbringing. If a parent can demonstrate that the other parent is unfit, irresponsible, or abusive, the court may grant sole legal custody to one parent.
Grandparents' Custody Rights in New Jersey
In New Jersey, parents' rights supersede those of grandparents, and only in rare cases (such as when both parents are deceased or are deemed unfit) are the grandparents awarded custody of a child. More commonly, grandparents may petition the courts for visitation rights, permitting them to spend time with the child and participate in their life. These rights are not automatically granted, however, so the grandparents must demonstrate that it serves the child's best interests.
Types of Child Custody Orders in New Jersey
During child custody proceedings, the court issues orders assigning responsibility to one or both parents regarding the child's care, living arrangements, and upbringing. There are three categories of child custody orders: emergency, temporary, and final custody orders.
- Emergency Custody Order: This is a short-term order (for instance, lasting several days) typically issued in situations where there is alleged abuse or neglect or when there is a threat of parental abduction of the child. An emergency custody order is usually granted when there's an immediate threat to the child's safety.
- Temporary Custody Order: As a transitory directive, this order is issued pending a hearing for a final custody order. It typically grants one parent exclusive physical custody in the interim, while the other parent is granted visitation rights unless there is a valid reason not to do so.
- Final Custody Order: The courts make a final determination as to the structure of custody for the child. The final custody order is intended to remain effective until the child turns 18 unless the orders are revised through another court petition.
Implications of Breaching a Child Custody Order
In New Jersey, any action that violates or obstructs a custody order is deemed a criminal act. Examples might include, but are not limited to:
- Transporting the child out of the state without approval;
- Failing to return the child to the other parent as agreed;
- Concealing the whereabouts of the child;
- Denying the other parent lawful access to the child; or
- Allowing the child to engage in dangerous activities.
Depending on the gravity of the violation, breaching a custody order can result in criminal charges ranging from second-degree to third-degree offenses--resulting in hefty fines and possible jail time. Furthermore, such violations may negatively impact your custodial rights regarding the child.
Factors Considered in Determining Where the Child Will Live
In New Jersey, individuals are considered minors until they reach 18, at which point they are legally recognized as adults. Consequently, they do not have the legal authority to choose their living arrangements until they turn 18. However, the child's input is considered by the courts during custody hearings, alongside other factors such as the child's age, health status, well-being, the parent's capacity to provide care and any history of domestic violence or abuse. While the court ultimately determines custody based on the child's best interests, the child's input can significantly influence their living circumstances. In general, the older the child, the more consideration the judge will give to their preferences when determining custody. Additionally, when deciding custody for siblings, the state prefers to keep siblings together in custody arrangements whenever feasible since research has shown this arrangement creates a greater sense of stability for the children.
The Role of the Court in Custody Decisions
The court seeks fair and impartial treatment for both parents during custody proceedings while considering the child's best interests. It considers factors such as the parent's ability to provide a secure and stable environment, the child's relationship with each parent, and the child's own wishes without presuming which parent the child should live with. Since every family and every situation is different, the solution to what is best for the child can vary widely from case to case.
By default, courts favor shared custody arrangements to allow children to maintain strong and affectionate relationships with both parents. However, a balanced 50/50 custody split may not be suitable for every family, so the court must base its decision on the relevant legal provisions.
Court Considerations in Child Custody Decisions
When deciding on child custody, the court must consider a wide range of factors in the context of what is best for the child. These factors include:
- Each parent's capability to provide a secure and stable environment for the child;
- Whether either or both parents have a history of abuse;
- A history of domestic violence in the relationship;
- Mental or psychological concerns;
- Any history of drug or alcohol issues;
- Criminal records, such as convictions for sex offenses or domestic violence and
- The child's preference if they are mature enough.
New Jersey law encourages continual contact between minor children and their parents whenever feasible, regardless of the final custody arrangement. However, certain negative elements may render this impractical or unsafe for the child. Generally speaking, most judges will deny custody (and sometimes visitation) to a parent who is a convicted child abuser or sex offender or to a parent with apparent unresolved issues with domestic violence.
Navigating Child Custody Proceedings in Bergen County, NJ
The Family Division of the Bergen County Superior Court is responsible for overseeing cases related to child custody, divorce, visitation, and other family matters. Here is an overview of the standard process for a child custody trial in Bergen County, NJ.
Initiating Custody Proceedings
A parent can lodge a custody complaint with the Family Division of the Bergen County Superior Court. In emergency situations, the court can hear the case on the same day, leading to a temporary or emergency custody order. Alternatively, one can request custody as part of a divorce complaint.
Custody petitions can be filed at:
Bergen County Justice Center, Family Division
10 Main Street
Hackensack, New Jersey 07601
Creating a Parenting Plan
New Jersey encourages parents to work together to formulate a written parenting plan that details their individual responsibilities for the child's care, including visitation schedules and holiday arrangements. The judge will generally approve this plan as long as it aligns with the child's best interests.
Resorting to Mediation
If parents are unable to agree on a parenting plan, mediation is advised to facilitate an agreement outside of court. If an agreement remains elusive after mediation, a custody evaluation may be conducted to ascertain the child's best interests.
In instances where parents fail to reach a mutually acceptable agreement through voluntary negotiation or mediation, the custody case advances to a formal hearing at Family Court. Both parties present evidence to support their respective cases, and the judge makes a custody decision based on the evidence presented, always prioritizing the child's well-being.
If you disagree with the judge's custody ruling or believe your rights have been infringed, you have the right to contest the custody order by filing a motion with the Family Court or appealing to the Superior Court.
Modifying Custody Agreements
As family circumstances and a child's specific needs evolve, the existing custody order may no longer serve the child's best interests. In such cases, either parent can petition the court for a modification to the agreement. The onus is on the petitioning parent to demonstrate that the amendment is warranted due to a change in circumstances.
The Value of a Family Law Attorney in Your New Jersey Child Custody Case
While hiring an attorney for child custody issues isn't a legal requirement, enlisting the services of an experienced attorney can greatly improve the chances of a favorable custody agreement. A good attorney can:
Navigate the complex court process and help you meet crucial deadlines. An experienced attorney will guide you through legal proceedings, ensuring all necessary paperwork is submitted on time.
Assess unforeseen implications of custody agreements. Your attorney can weigh the advantages and disadvantages of any proposed agreements, helping you make informed decisions.
Represent your interests in court, if necessary. If your case goes to a hearing, a skilled attorney will help craft a compelling argument, backed by evidence, to advocate for your parental rights and the child's best interests.
The Family Law Team at Lento Law Firm is dedicated to helping you understand your rights and confidently navigate your child custody issues.
The Lento Law Firm: Your Advocate in Bergen County Child Custody Matters
Handling matters of child custody, visitation rights, and other related family law issues can be overwhelming and confusing. Fortunately, you don't have to tackle these challenges alone. The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team brings extensive experience in successfully managing even the most complex child custody cases. We will stand by you throughout the process to help you get a positive outcome for you and your child. To schedule a case consultation, contact us online or call us at (888) 535-3686.