The process of deciding child custody following a separation or divorce is often one of the most challenging aspects for parents to navigate. The responsibility of determining the care and welfare of the children presents numerous complexities, and given the elevated emotional state of the parents, it's often impossible for either of them to be objective in making those decisions. In circumstances where parents are unable to reach a mutual agreement, it becomes the duty of the courts to intervene and establish custody arrangements that prioritize the child's best interests.
If you are currently involved in a child custody dispute in Cumberland County, PA, you already understand what's at stake. Having an experienced child custody attorney on your side can make all the difference in your case. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Family Law Team have a long track record of success with child custody agreements across New Jersey, including Cumberland County. To schedule a consultation, please contact us here or give us a call at 888-535-3686.
New Jersey Child Custody Laws
New Jersey's child custody laws are encapsulated in Chapter 9:2 of the New Jersey Statutes. This section covers all legal facets of child custody, such as court powers in determining custodial arrangements, parental rights, grandparent visitation rights, laws related to surrender or termination of parental rights, etc. The key principle guiding these laws is the unwavering commitment to make decisions that serve the child's best interest.
Understanding the Difference Between Child Custody and Child Support in New Jersey
In New Jersey, the terms child custody and child support represent two distinct legal concepts pertaining to the care and upbringing of children post-divorce or separation.
Child custody pertains to the legal rights and obligations parents possess in steering decisions about their child's upbringing. Custody can be categorized into two types: physical custody (i.e., where the child will live) and legal custody (i.e., who makes important decisions on behalf of the child). Custody can either be joint custody (both parents share equal rights) or sole custody (one parent has primary rights).
Child support, conversely, refers to the financial responsibility one parent bears to cater to the child's essential needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, education, and healthcare. This obligation is usually fulfilled by the non-custodial parent and is guided by a set of state-established guidelines. The amount of child support is determined based on various factors, including the parent's income, the number of children, and the specific needs of the child.
Grandparents' Rights to Custody in New Jersey
While parents' rights typically supersede grandparents' rights in matters of child custody, under exceptional circumstances (like an unfit parent or termination of parental rights), grandparents can seek court approval for full custody of a grandchild. More commonly, grandparents may petition for visitation rights to spend time with their grandchildren (without full custody) if such rights are being denied by the parents. However, these rights are not automatically granted; grandparents must convince the court that granting them such rights serves the child's best interests.
Preserving Sibling Bonds
New Jersey law advocates for siblings to remain together in physical custody arrangements whenever feasible. This stance is supported by a 2017 report from the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, which concluded that maintaining sibling bonds in custody arrangements fosters a more supportive and stable environment for the children.
Types of Child Custody in New Jersey
New Jersey recognizes two primary types of child custody: physical custody and legal custody.
Physical Custody: Where the Child Resides
Physical custody relates to the child's living situation and daily care. The parent awarded physical custody is tasked with meeting the child's day-to-day needs and providing routine care until the child reaches 18 years of age.
Legal Custody: Authority to Make Decisions
Legal custody confers the power to make significant decisions regarding the child's upbringing. These decisions usually involve matters such as the child's education, healthcare, religious upbringing, etc.
Joint or Sole Custody
In terms of both physical and legal custody, parents may be granted either joint or sole custody of the child.
Joint custody means that both parents share the responsibility of raising the child. Joint physical custody denotes that the child splits their time living with each parent, while joint legal custody necessitates that parents agree on vital decisions for the child. Joint custody does not always mean an equal 50/50 split of time (although this is frequently the case). As long as it is in the child's best interests, the child's time can be divided between each household in a manner that best suits the needs and preferences of both the parents and the child.
Sole custody grants one parent exclusive rights and responsibilities for their child. Sole custody can be physical, meaning that the child lives solely with one parent; or legal, giving one parent the right to make all decisions regarding the child's upbringing. (In many situations, one parent has both physical and legal sole custody.) When possible, the non-custodial parent is usually granted visitation rights unless there are concerns for the child's safety or well-being. Sole legal custody is typically awarded to one parent when the other parent is deemed unfit due to issues such as abuse, neglect, or irresponsibility.
New Jersey Child Custody Orders
In child custody proceedings, the responsibility of the family court is to issue orders that define the parent who will be accountable for the child's welfare and, in some instances, outline the child's living arrangements. These orders fall into three primary categories: emergency, temporary, and final custody orders.
- Emergency Custody Order: An immediate, short-term order issued only when the court perceives an imminent threat to a child, such as abuse, neglect, or potential abduction by a parent.
- Temporary Custody Order: An interim order granting one parent sole physical custody and visitation rights to the other parent until the final hearing.
- Final Custody Order: Formalizes child custody until they turn 18 or until a parent requests modifications from the court.
Consequences of Violating a Child Custody Order in New Jersey
In New Jersey, any breach or interference with a child custody order is considered a crime. Typical examples of custody violations include:
- Hiding the child or denying access to the other parent
- Transferring the child across state borders without proper consent
- Neglecting to return the child to the other parent as per the custody agreement
- Allowing the child to participate in dangerous activities
The severity of the violation dictates the degree of the criminal charges, which can vary from second-degree to third-degree offenses. Additionally, such actions can negatively impact your custodial rights and future interactions with your child.
Determining Where the Child Will Live
In New Jersey, individuals are recognized as minors until they turn 18 years old. As minors, they lack the legal authority to decide their living arrangements as they are not deemed mature enough to make such choices. However, during the custody decision-making process, the court considers the child's preferences alongside other considerations like age, health, well-being, parents' capacity to provide care and any history of domestic violence or abuse. Typically, the older the child is, the more weight the judge will place on their desires and preferences. Ultimately, the court's decision is grounded in the child's best interests, with the child's input also informing the judge's final decision.
The Court's Role in Custody Decisions
Throughout the child custody process, courts have a fundamental duty to ensure unbiased treatment for both parents. It is inappropriate to make presumptions about which parent should assume primary caregiving responsibilities based on gender or other stereotypical factors. Instead, the court must contemplate various factors, including each parent's capacity to provide a secure and stable environment, the child's relationship with each parent, and the child's own desires. The ultimate objective is to establish the most advantageous arrangement that serves the child's best interests.
Factors and Considerations in Determining Child Custody
When deciding on child custody arrangements, the primary determinant is always the child's best interests. While this often results in a 50/50 joint custody arrangement, other factors may influence this decision, including, but not limited to:
- A history of abuse by either parent;
- The occurrence of domestic violence in the relationship;
- The existence of mental health or psychological concerns;
- A history of alcohol or drug use;
- Criminal records, including convictions for sex offenses or domestic violence;
- Each parent's ability to provide a safe and stable environment for the child; and
- The child's preference regarding their living arrangements based on their maturity level.
Any factor that could negatively affect whether the child is raised in a safe, nurturing environment will be weighed more heavily. For instance, parents who are convicted sex offenders and/or prone to domestic violence are typically denied custody based on their previous record.
Understanding Child Custody Proceedings in Cumberland County, NJ
In Cumberland County, NJ, family law matters such as divorce, child custody, visitation, etc., are administered by the Family Division of Cumberland County Superior Court, located in Bridgeton, NJ. The process for determining child custody cases adheres to a systematic series of steps.
Initiating Custody Proceedings
A parent can initiate the child custody process by submitting a custody complaint to the Family Division of Cumberland County Superior Court via the following information:
Cumberland County Courthouse, Family Division
60 West Broad Street
Bridgeton, New Jersey 08302
856-878-5050, ext. 15720
In emergency situations where the child may be in imminent danger, the court may conduct a hearing on the same day the complaint is filed, possibly resulting in a temporary or emergency custody order. Alternatively, a parent can request custody as part of a divorce complaint.
Development and Submission of Parenting Plans
New Jersey encourages parents to work together on devising a comprehensive parenting plan. This written document should detail each parent's respective obligations regarding the child, including arrangements for visitations, holidays, and vacations. As long as the plan aligns with the child's best interests, the presiding judge will typically endorse it.
In instances where parents are unable to reach a consensus on a parenting plan, the Family Court advises mediation as a means to facilitate agreement outside the courtroom setting.
If the parents fail to achieve a mutually acceptable agreement, either independently or through mediation, the custody dispute advances to a formal hearing. Here, both parties present evidence to the judge to substantiate their claims. Ultimately, the judge's decision regarding custody is informed by the evidence presented and prioritizes the welfare of the child.
Right to Appeal
If you disagree with the court's ruling concerning custody, believe your rights have been infringed, or assert that the child's best interests have not been upheld, you are entitled to appeal the custody order, either by filing a motion with the Family Court or submitting a formal appeal at the Superior Court.
Modification of Custody Agreements
Over time, families often experience changes in circumstances. (For example, a parent loses their job, receives a lucrative job offer in another state, etc.) If either parent feels that the existing custody order no longer serves the child's best interests due to significant changes in circumstances, they can petition the Family Division for a modification of the agreement.
Legal Representation in Child Custody Matters: Is it Mandatory?
While it is not legally mandated to hire an attorney for child custody matters, having one often leads to more favorable outcomes. A competent attorney can:
- Help you navigate the complex legal landscape of child custody, ensuring all necessary paperwork is correctly completed and submitted within stipulated deadlines.
- Assess any custody agreement, enabling you to understand its potential benefits and drawbacks and avoid unforeseen repercussions.
- Provide invaluable assistance in building a compelling, evidence-based argument should your custody dispute advance to court.
The Lento Law Firm: Your Child Custody Advocate in Cumberland County, New Jersey
Coming to an agreement on child custody is rarely easy, and without an experienced attorney on your side, the decision is less likely to lean in your favor. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his dedicated Family Law Team understand the importance of protecting your rights and your child's interests during this difficult time. To schedule a consultation, please contact us online or call us at (888) 535-3686.