In matters of family law, determining custody of the children can be the most challenging, complicated, and painful process of any separation or divorce. While parents generally want what's best for their children, figuring out what that is can often be clouded and confused by high emotions and disagreements between the parents. When the courts have to become involved in the decision-making process, it can be even more stressful and anxiety-inducing--, and even though the courts try to decide in the child's best interests, their decisions aren't always optimal, either.
Because your child's well-being is paramount, and because your own rights could be at risk, your best hope of a favorable outcome is to hire an experienced Camden County family law attorney to advocate on behalf of your child and yourself. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Family Law Team have extensive experience in addressing all aspects of family law, including child custody agreements, in Camden County. Contact us online or call us at (888) 535-3686 to discuss your case.
An Overview of Child Custody in New Jersey
The specifics of New Jersey's child custody laws can be found in Title 9 Section 2 of the NJ Statutes. These laws cover everything from the authority of the courts in determining custody to policies regarding forfeiture of parental rights, custody orders, and more. In all custody matters, the primary objective of the court is to make decisions with the child's best interests at heart.
The Difference Between Child Custody and Child Support
In New Jersey, there's a clear legal difference between child custody and child support--and while the differences may be obvious to some, we should discuss them here because they are determined by different sets of criteria.
- Child custody refers to the rights and responsibilities parents have in making decisions about their child's upbringing. This includes physical custody (where the child will live) and legal custody (who makes important decisions for the child). Custody can be awarded as joint (both parents have equal rights) or sole (one parent has primary rights).
- Child support refers to one parent's financial obligation to provide for their child's basic needs, like food, clothing, shelter, education, and healthcare. The non-custodial parent usually pays the custodial parent according to state guidelines based on factors like income, number of children, and specific needs.
What Are the Custody Rights of Grandparents in New Jersey?
In New Jersey, parents' rights take precedence over grandparents' rights. In some situations, grandparents typically seek visitation rights, which allow them to spend time with the child and be involved in their life, as opposed to obtaining full custody. To secure visitation rights, grandparents must demonstrate that it is in the child's best interests, as these rights are not granted automatically. Only in extraordinary circumstances (such as the loss of a parent, unfit parent, or termination of parental rights) can grandparents petition the court for full custody.
Categories of Child Custody in New Jersey
In New Jersey, there are two sides of child custody to consider: physical custody and legal custody.
Physical custody pertains to where the child will live and the basics of daily care. The parent granted physical custody will be responsible for the child's everyday needs until they reach 18 years of age.
Legal custody grants the authority to make significant decisions on behalf of the child concerning their upbringing--for example, the child's education, medical care, religious training, etc.
Joint or Sole Custody Options
Both types of custody (physical and legal) may be awarded either to both parents (joint custody) or solely to one parent (sole custody).
Joint custody involves both parents sharing the responsibility of raising the child, including:
- Joint physical custody: Parents share the obligation of physically caring for the child, with the child dividing their time living with each parent.
- Joint legal custody: Both parents share the responsibility of making important decisions for the child.
Joint custody does not necessarily imply an equal division of time but rather indicates that the child can reside with both parents, with the specific time spent in each household determined by the child's best interests. Likewise, one parent could have full-time physical custody while sharing legal custody with the other parent.
Sole custody signifies that a single parent is given both physical and legal custody of the child. This arrangement could be awarded if there are circumstances that would make joint custody difficult to manage.
- Sole physical custody: Unless there are severe issues like abuse or neglect, the non-custodial parent typically receives visitation rights.
- Sole legal custody: If a parent can prove that the other parent is unfit, irresponsible, or abusive, the court may grant sole legal custody to one parent.
Types of Child Custody Orders in New Jersey
During child custody cases, the court issues orders that determine which parent will be responsible for the child's care and, in some instances, their residence. These orders are categorized into three main types: emergency, temporary, and final custody orders.
- Emergency Custody Order: Short-term in nature (e.g., lasting a few days); this order may be issued in cases of abuse, neglect, or risk of parental abduction. Emergency custody orders are typically granted when there is an immediate danger to the child.
- Temporary Custody Order: This is an interim order issued pending a final custody order hearing. It generally awards one parent sole physical custody and the other parent visitation rights until final custody is decided.
- Final Custody Order: Designed to last until the child turns 18 or an alternative arrangement is reached, these orders can be modified or amended through another court petition.
Consequences of Violating a Child Custody Order
In New Jersey, any action that violates or interferes with a custody order is considered a criminal act. Examples may include, but are not limited to:
- Removing the child from the state without consent,
- Failing to return the child to the other parent as scheduled,
- Concealing or withholding the child, or
- Permitting the child to participate in hazardous activities.
Depending on the severity of the offense, violating a custody order can result in criminal charges ranging from second-degree to third-degree offenses. Additionally, such violations may adversely affect your custodial rights concerning the child.
What Considerations Go into Determining a Child's Physical Residence?
In New Jersey, children are minors until they turn 18, when they become legal adults. This means they lack the legal authority to decide their living arrangements. However, the child's input is factored in by the courts during custody proceedings, in addition to other considerations such as the child's age, health, well-being, the parent's ability to provide care, and any history of domestic violence or abuse. Although the court ultimately decides custody based on the best interests of the child, the child's input can significantly impact their living situation. Generally speaking, the older a child is, the more weight the judge will place on their desires and preferences when determining custody. Additionally, when custody is being determined for siblings, the state prefers to keep those siblings together whenever possible in custody arrangements.
Court's Role in Custody Decisions
During custody proceedings, the court is responsible for ensuring both parents receive fair and unbiased treatment while also deciding what is in the child's best interests. By default, the court does not assume which parent the child should reside with and considers various factors, including the parent's ability to provide a stable and safe environment, the child's relationship with each parent, and the child's own wishes. The ultimate goal is to establish the most suitable arrangement that serves the best interests of the child. The answer to this question may differ widely from case to case since every family situation is different.
By default, the courts tend to favor joint custody arrangements so that the children can maintain strong and loving relationships with both parents. However, a 50/50 custody split may not be appropriate for every family, so the court must base its decision on the relevant legal provisions.
Factors Considered by Courts in Child Custody Decisions
When deciding on child custody arrangements, the primary determinant is what serves the best interests of the child. The court must consider various factors in child custody evaluations, such as:
- Each parent's ability to provide a safe and stable environment for the child;
- Whether either or both parents have a history of abuse;
- History of domestic violence in the relationship;
- Mental or psychological concerns;
- History of drug or alcohol problems;
- Criminal records, such as convictions for sex offenses or domestic violence; and
- The child's preference, if they are mature enough.
New Jersey law promotes ongoing contact between minor children and their parents whenever possible, regardless of the custody arrangement. However, some negative factors may make this unfeasible 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 problems with domestic violence.
Child Custody Process in Camden County, NJ
In Camden County, matters related to child custody, divorce, visitation, and similar issues are handled by the Family Division of the Camden County Superior Court. Below is an overview of the typical child custody trial process in Camden County, NJ:
Filing for Custody
A parent may file a custody complaint with the Family Division of the Camden County Superior Court. Emergency cases may be heard on the same day, resulting in a temporary or emergency custody order. Alternatively, custody can be requested as part of a divorce complaint.
You can submit a custody petition to:
Camden County Family Practice Division
Hall of Justice 2nd Floor
101 S. 5th Street
Camden, NJ 08103-4001
By default, the state urges parents to collaborate voluntarily to develop a written parenting plan outlining their respective responsibilities for the child, including visitation schedules and arrangements for vacations and holidays. The judge will typically approve the plan unless it is deemed not to be in the child's best interest.
If parents cannot agree on a parenting plan themselves, mediation is recommended to help the parents reach an agreement out of court. A custody evaluation may be conducted to help determine the child's best interests if an agreement cannot be reached in mediation.
If the parents can't reach an acceptable agreement voluntarily or by mediation, the custody case proceeds to a formal hearing where both parties present evidence supporting their case. The judge will then decide custody based on the evidence presented, always prioritizing the child's welfare.
If you disagree with the ruling of the judge regarding custody or believe your rights have been violated, you have the right to appeal a custody order, either by filing a motion with the Family Court or appealing to the Superior Court.
Can Custody Agreements Be Modified?
Yes, they can. Family circumstances do change, as do the child's specific needs. If the current custody order no longer serves the child's best interests, either parent can file a petition to modify the agreement. The petitioner must show cause that the modification is necessary due to a change in circumstances.
Why Hire an Attorney for Your New Jersey Child Custody Case
While it is not legally required to retain an attorney for child custody issues, seeking the assistance of a legal professional offers numerous advantages, such as:
- Navigating the intricate court process and meeting essential deadlines: A knowledgeable attorney will guide you through legal proceedings, ensuring all necessary paperwork is filed promptly.
- Evaluating potential consequences of custody agreements: Your attorney will weigh the pros and cons of any proposed arrangements, helping you make well-informed decisions.
- Representing your interests in court: If your case requires a hearing before a judge, a good attorney will aid in constructing a persuasive argument, supported by evidence, to advocate for your position.
The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team is committed to helping you comprehend your rights and confidently address your child custody concerns.
Your Child Custody Advocate in Camden County
Dealing with child custody, visitation rights, and other related family law issues can be daunting and perplexing. The good news is, you don't have to face these struggles alone. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Family Law Team possess extensive experience in successfully navigating even the most complicated child custody cases. We will support you throughout the process while prioritizing your child's best interests. To schedule a case consultation, contact us online or call us at (888) 535-3686.