In any separation or divorce, perhaps the most stressful and emotionally charged issue to resolve is how child custody will be determined. As parents, it's instinctive to desire what's best for your children, but determining what is truly in the child's best interests can be difficult and harrowing, especially when the parents disagree or when the child's safety is at stake.
In Essex County, NJ, the favored approach in determining child custody is for parents to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. However, should they fail to do so, the family court has the authority to intervene and establish what aligns with the child's best interests. Without experienced legal counsel, you could easily find yourself having to deal with a judge's determination that does not match your expectations or desires for the child. At worst, your custody rights could be in jeopardy altogether.
The gravity of these circumstances cannot be underestimated. Your best hope of a favorable outcome is to hire an experienced Essex County family law attorney, one who understands the workings of the New Jersey custody process. The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team offers years of experience in negotiating child custody settlements in Essex County. Contact us online or call (888) 535-3686 to arrange a consultation.
Child Custody Laws in New Jersey
New Jersey's child custody laws provide a thorough framework delineating the court's jurisdiction over custody, parental rights, forfeiture regulations, custody orders, and related issues. The overarching consideration for the court in all custody conflicts is to deliver judgments that prioritize the child's best interests while ensuring transparency, fairness, and justice.
Types of Child Custody in New Jersey
The state of New Jersey recognizes two different levels of child custody: physical custody and i.
- Physical custody refers to the living arrangements and daily care of the child. The parent awarded physical custody assumes responsibility for meeting the child's day-to-day needs until they reach the age of 18 (and sometimes beyond).
- Legal custody refers to a parent's authority to make significant decisions about the child's upbringing, including education, healthcare, religious orientation, and more.
Joint or Sole Custody
Both physical and legal custody can either be mutually shared between parents (joint custody) or exclusively granted to one parent (sole custody).
Understanding Shared Custody
Shared custody means the parents divide the responsibilities of caring for their children.
- Shared physical custody involves both parents sharing the responsibility of meeting the child's physical needs while the child divides their time at the homes of both parents. This may be a 50/50 split of time, but the actual division will depend largely on what is best for the child.
- Shared legal custody means both parents must reach a consensus regarding important decisions for the child, fostering a collaborative approach to parenting.
Dividing custody in this manner also means it's possible for one parent to have full-time physical custody while sharing joint legal custody with the other parent.
Defining Sole Custody
Sole custody indicates that only one parent has been granted custody of the child. This arrangement may be the optimal solution if circumstances exist that could complicate joint custody.
Sole physical custody refers to the arrangement where the child resides full-time with the custodial parent. In most cases, the non-custodial parent is granted visitation rights unless there are serious issues such as abuse or neglect.
Sole legal custody means one parent has the exclusive authority to make crucial decisions concerning the child's upbringing. If a parent can provide evidence of the other parent's unfitness, irresponsibility, or abusive behavior, the court may grant sole legal custody to one parent.
What Are the Rights of Grandparents in New Jersey?
In New Jersey, parents' rights supersede those of grandparents, and only under exceptional circumstances are grandparents granted full custody of a child (for example, when both parents are deceased or deemed unfit). More commonly, grandparents can appeal to the courts for visitation rights. However, these rights are not automatically granted, and the grandparents must demonstrate that it serves the child's best interests.
Child Custody Orders in New Jersey
During child custody proceedings, the court issues orders assigning one or both parents with duties related to the child's care, living arrangements, and upbringing. There are three types of child custody orders: emergency, temporary, and final custody orders.
An emergency custody order is generally granted when there is an immediate threat to the child's safety.It's a provisional order, typically effective for a few days, often issued in cases involving allegations of abuse or neglect or risk of parental child abduction.
A temporary custody order is issued pending a hearing to determine permanent custody. It usually grants one parent exclusive physical custody until the final hearing, while the other parent is given visitation rights unless there's a valid reason not to do so.
The final custody order signifies the court's final decision on the child's custody arrangement. This order is intended to remain in effect until the child reaches 18 years of age unless the arrangement is modified by subsequent court proceedings.
Implications of Violating a Child Custody Agreement
In the State of New Jersey, contravening a child custody order is deemed a criminal act. Actions that may constitute a breach of a custody order include (but are not limited to):
- Illegally relocating the child out of state;
- Neglecting to return the child to the other parent according to the stipulated agreement;
- Concealing the child's whereabouts;
- Depriving the other parent of their legitimate rights to the child; or
- Subjecting the child to potentially hazardous situations.
The degree of the violation can escalate to criminal charges ranging from second to third-degree offenses, which could lead to significant fines and possible incarceration. Furthermore, such violations could negatively impact your custody rights.
Deciding Where the Child Will Live
In New Jersey, children do not have the legal right to decide which parent they live with because they are legally considered minors until the age of 18. However, during custody proceedings, the family court judge takes into account the child's preferences alongside other considerations such as the child's age, health, welfare, the parents' capability to provide care, and any history of domestic violence or abuse. While the court ultimately assigns custody based on the child's best interests, the child's wishes can influence their residential arrangements. Moreover, when determining custody for siblings, the state prefers to keep siblings together in custody arrangements whenever feasible, as research indicates this arrangement offers greater stability for the children.
The Court's Function in Child Custody Determinations
The family court's role is to ensure both parents receive equal and unbiased treatment during custody proceedings, all the while prioritizing the child's best interests. As every family and situation is distinct, the solution to what is best for the child can vary significantly from case to case.
By default, courts favor joint custody arrangements to allow children to sustain meaningful and loving relationships with both parents. However, an equal 50/50 custody split may not be suitable for every family, so the court must base its decision on other considerations.
Determinants Influencing the Court's Verdict in Child Custody
When adjudicating child custody, the court must take numerous considerations into account when deciding what is best for the child. These factors include:
- Each parent's capacity to provide a secure and stable environment for the child;
- Any history of abuse by either or both parents;
- A history of domestic violence in the relationship;
- Mental or psychological concerns;
- Any history of drug or alcohol problems;
- Criminal records, such as convictions for sex offenses or domestic violence; and
- The child's own wishes.
While New Jersey law encourages regular contact between children and their parents whenever possible, certain negative elements may render this impractical or unsafe for the child. For instance, 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 evident unresolved issues with domestic violence.
The Child Custody Process in Essex County, New Jersey
Child custody matters in Essex County, New Jersey, are handled by the Family Division of the Superior Court. This court also administers divorce, visitation rights, and other relevant family matters. If you and your child's other parent are figuring out custody concerns, here is an overview of the process.
Initiating a Custody Claim
A parent wishing to file a custody claim can do so through the Family Division of the Essex County Superior Court. In urgent scenarios, the court has the provision to address the case on the same day, which may result in an emergency or temporary custody order. Alternatively, a parent can request custody as part of a divorce claim.
The custody claims can be lodged at:
Family Division Robert N. Wilentz Justice Complex - Family Courthouse
212 Washington Street
Newark, New Jersey 07102
PHONE: Kesha Manning, Family Division Manager, 973-776-9300 ext. 56718.
Developing a Parenting Plan
Parents are encouraged to collaborate in drafting a parenting plan outlining their respective roles in their child's upbringing--including details of where the child will live, time division between parents, visitation timetables, and holiday plans. Unless it is deemed against the child's best interests, the judge will generally consent to a plan agreed to by both parents.
If the parents fail to reach a mutual agreement on the parenting plan, mediation is recommended as a means to hammer out an out-of-court agreement. If there's still no agreement post-mediation, a custody evaluation may be initiated to determine the child's best interests.
Formal Custody Hearing
When parents are unable to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution either through voluntary negotiation or mediation, the custody case is forwarded to a formal hearing at the Family Court. Each party presents evidence in support of their claims, and the judge issues a custody order based on the presented evidence, always prioritizing the child's welfare.
Appealing a Custody Order
If you find yourself disagreeing with the judge's custody order or feel that your rights have been violated, you have the option to challenge the custody order by filing an appeal either with the Family Court or the Superior Court.
Modifying a Child Custody Agreement
As time passes, the needs of the child may change, as well as the circumstances of the family. If the custody agreement no longer serves the best interests of the child or becomes unfeasible for one or both parents, either parent can petition the court for a modification of the agreement, provided they can demonstrate that significant changes in circumstances justify the proposed amendment.
The Importance of a Family Law Attorney in Your New Jersey Child Custody Case
While hiring a legal representative for child custody disputes isn't a legal requirement, doing so can significantly enhance your chances of obtaining a favorable custody arrangement. A good attorney can help in the following ways:
- Help you navigate the complex court process of filing for custody;
- Ensure compliance with crucial deadlines;
- Evaluate tentative custody agreements to identify unforeseen implications and negotiate changes as needed; and
- Represent your interests in family court as needed.
Your Legal Ally in Essex County Family Court: The Lento Law Firm
Given the emotional upheaval that can occur when determining child custody, visitation rights, etc., having the right family law attorney can make a huge difference in maintaining perspective and help you navigate your way to a favorable solution for you and your child. The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team brings extensive experience to the table, having successfully handled even the most complex child custody cases in Essex County, NJ. They are committed to securing the best possible outcome for both you and your child. To schedule a case consultation, contact us online or call us at (888) 535-3686.