Most parents who separate or divorce will readily admit that determinations regarding child custody are among the hardest challenges to face. Determining who is responsible for the care of the children is an issue fraught with complexity and emotional upheaval. When parents can't reach an agreement between themselves, the courts must intervene to establish custody arrangements based on the best interests of the child.
If you find yourself embroiled in a complex child custody dispute in Gloucester County, NJ, you don't have to be told what's at stake. Your best hope of a favorable outcome for both you and your child is to seek the assistance of an experienced New Jersey family law attorney. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Family Law Team have helped many clients navigate difficult child custody agreements throughout New Jersey, including in Gloucester County. To schedule a consultation, contact us online or call us at (888) 535-3686.
Child Custody Laws in New Jersey
Child custody laws for New Jersey are embodied in Title 9:2 of the New Jersey Statutes. This section covers all legal aspects of custody, including the powers of the court to determine custodial arrangements, parental rights, visitation rights for grandparents, laws concerning surrender and/or termination of parental rights, etc. Of primary importance within these laws is the overriding priority to make decisions in the best interest of the child.
Distinguishing Child Custody from Child Support
In New Jersey, child custody and child support are two separate legal concepts related to the care and upbringing of children after a divorce or separation.
Child Custody refers to the legal rights and responsibilities that parents have in making decisions about their child's upbringing, including education, healthcare, religion, and other aspects of their life. Custody can be divided into two types: physical custody, which determines where the child will live, and legal custody, which grants the authority to make decisions for the child. Custody can be awarded as joint (both parents share equal rights) or sole (one parent has primary rights).
Child Support, on the other hand, is the financial obligation one parent has to provide for the child's basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, education, and healthcare. This is typically paid by the non-custodial parent to the custodial parent and is determined by a set of guidelines established by the state. The amount of child support is based on various factors, including the parent's income, the number of children, and the specific needs of the child.
Grandparents' Custody Rights in New Jersey
Parents' rights generally take precedence over grandparents' rights concerning child custody. However, in exceptional circumstances (such as an unfit parent or termination of parental rights), grandparents can petition the court for custody of a grandchild. More commonly, grandparents may seek visitation rights to spend time with their grandchildren (without obtaining full custody) if those rights are otherwise being denied by the parents. Since these rights are not granted automatically, grandparents must demonstrate to the court that it is in the child's best interests.
Keeping Siblings Together
New Jersey law holds the position that siblings should be kept together in physical custody arrangements whenever possible. This position is based on a 2017 report by the New Jersey Department of Children and Families that concludes that keeping siblings together in custody arrangements creates a more supportive and stable environment for them.
Child Custody Categories in New Jersey
The two main types of child custody in New Jersey are physical custody and legal custody.
Physical Custody: The Child's Residence
Physical custody pertains to the child's living arrangements and daily care. The parent granted physical custody is responsible for meeting the child's everyday needs and providing routine care at least until the child's 18th birthday.
Legal Custody: Decision-making Authority
Legal custody grants the authority to make significant decisions on behalf of the child concerning their upbringing. These decisions typically involve matters such as the child's education, healthcare, religious upbringing, etc.
Joint or Sole Custody
Regarding both physical and legal custody, parents may be awarded either joint custody or sole custody of the child.
Joint custody involves both parents sharing the responsibility of raising the child. Joint physical custody means the child divides their time living with each parent, while joint legal custody requires the parents to reach a consensus on important decisions for the child. Joint custody does not necessarily entail a 50/50 split of time (although this is often the case). As long as it serves the child's best interests, the child's time can be divided between each household in whatever way suits both the parents and the child's needs and desires.
Sole custody grants one parent exclusive rights to live with the child (physical) or make decisions on their behalf (legal). With sole physical custody, the non-custodial parent will usually receive visitation rights unless there are harmful issues like abuse or neglect at play. Sole legal custody is typically awarded to one parent if they prove to the court that the other parent is abusive, irresponsible, or otherwise unable to care for or make decisions concerning the child.
Child Custody Orders in New Jersey
When determining child custody, the family court issues orders that establish which parent is responsible for the child's care and, in some cases, where the child will live. These orders can be classified into three main types: emergency, temporary, and final custody orders.
- Emergency Custody Order: This short-term order usually only lasts a few days and is only issued in cases where the court deems that the child may be endangered (e.g., abuse, neglect, or risk of parental abduction).
- Temporary Custody Order: This is an interim custody order that remains in effect until a final custody order hearing is held, typically awarding one parent sole physical custody and the other parent visitation rights until the final hearing takes place.
- Final Custody Order: This order solidifies the custody arrangements for the child. It is intended to last until the child turns 18 or until one or both parents petition the court to modify the order.
In many custody cases, the judge will issue a temporary custody order before a hearing to determine final custody takes place. Some custody cases involve issuing all three types of orders sequentially (emergency, temporary, and final).
Implications of Breaching a Child Custody Order in New Jersey
In New Jersey, violating or interfering with a child custody order is regarded as a criminal offense. Common examples of custody violations include:
- Concealing or withholding the child from the other parent
- Transporting the child across state lines without authorization
- Failing to return the child to the other parent as stipulated in the custody agreement
- Permitting the child to engage in hazardous activities
The severity of the violation dictates the level of criminal charges, which can range from second-degree to third-degree offenses. Moreover, such actions may adversely affect your custody rights and future interactions with your child.
Factors Impacting the Child's Living Arrangements
In New Jersey, children are considered minors until they reach 18 years of age. Minors lack the legal authority to decide their living arrangements because they are not deemed mature enough to do so. However, during the custody decision-making process, the court will consider the child's preferences alongside other factors such as age, health, well-being, parents' ability to provide care, and any history of domestic violence or abuse. The court's final decision is based on the best interests of the child, with the child's input playing a crucial role in determining their living situation.
The older the child is, the more weight their desires tend to carry with the courts as far as living arrangements. A teenager's preference as to which parent they live with will generally be considered more heavily than that of a young child who lacks the maturity to decide these matters. Although younger children's preferences may be taken into account, the court prioritizes other factors when determining the child's best interests.
The Court's Role in Custody Decisions
Ensuring fair and impartial treatment for both parents is a fundamental responsibility of courts throughout the child custody process. It is not acceptable to make assumptions about which parent should be the primary caregiver based on gender or other stereotypical factors. Instead, courts must take numerous factors under consideration, including each parent's ability to provide a safe and stable 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 child's best interests, which may require a nuanced approach considering each case's unique circumstances.
Factors Considered by the Court in Child Custody Decisions
When deciding on child custody arrangements, the primary determinant is always what serves the child's best interests. While this often results in a 50/50 joint custody arrangement, other factors may affect this decision, including, but not limited to:
- Whether either parent has a history of abuse
- Whether there has been domestic violence in the relationship
- Whether there are mental health or psychological concerns
- Whether there is 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, among other factors
- The child's preference as to where they live, based on their maturity
Any factor that could negatively affect whether the child is raised in a safe, nurturing environment will be weighed more heavily. For example, parents who are convicted sex offenders and/or prone to domestic violence are typically denied custody based on their prior record.
How Child Custody Works in Gloucester County, NJ
The Family Division of the Gloucester County Superior Court in Woodbury, NJ, oversees all family-related legal matters, including divorce, child custody, visitation rights, and domestic abuse. Child custody cases follow a predetermined set of steps as follows.
Filing for Custody
A parent may initiate child custody proceedings by filing a custody complaint with the Family Division via the following contact information:
Gloucester County Justice Complex
70 Hunter Street
Woodbury, New Jersey 08096
856-878-5050 ext. 15490
Emergency cases, such as those involving immediate risk to the child, 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.
Submitting Parenting Plans
New Jersey prefers parents to work together to develop a written parenting plan outlining their respective responsibilities for the child, including visitation schedules and arrangements for vacations and holidays. In most cases, the judge will approve the plan provided it does not violate the child's best interest.
If parents cannot agree on a parenting plan, the Family Court recommends mediation to help the parents reach an agreement outside of court.
If the parents cannot reach an acceptable agreement either between themselves or in mediation, the custody case proceeds to a formal hearing where both parties present evidence supporting their case. The judge will decide custody based on the evidence presented, always prioritizing the child's welfare.
If you disagree with the judge's ruling regarding custody, or if you believe your rights have been violated or the child's best interests have not been served, you have the right to appeal a custody order.
Modifying Custody Agreements
In any family, circumstances change over time. If either or both parents feel the current custody order no longer serves the child's best interests, they can file a petition with the Family Division to modify the agreement. The petitioner must prove that the modification is necessary because of a substantial change in circumstances.
Is an Attorney Mandatory for Child Custody Matters?
No. You're not legally required to hire an attorney for child custody matters. However, enlisting the help of an experienced attorney typically results in more favorable outcomes. A good attorney will:
- Guide you through the intricate legal process of child custody, ensuring all paperwork is accurately filed, and deadlines are met
- Review any custody agreement to help you assess the advantages and disadvantages and prevent unforeseen consequences
- Support you in constructing a robust, evidence-based argument if your custody dispute proceeds to court
The Lento Law Firm: Your Advocate in New Jersey Child Custody Matters
Navigating family law issues involving child custody, visitation rights, and related concerns can be overwhelming and complicated, often leaving children caught in the middle. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Family Law Team recognize the stakes for both you and your child and are committed to championing your child's best interests. To arrange a consultation, contact us online or call us at (888) 535-3686.