In any discussion about child custody in New Jersey, the overarching factor is (and should be) what is in the child's best interest. However, given the emotional turmoil involved when couples separate or divorce, the question of the child's best interest can become clouded and complex. That is why contentions over child custody can escalate into some of the most emotionally charged, complex, and distressing situations that separating couples encounter. It is also why, when parents are unable to reach an agreement, the courts must intervene—potentially adding to an already stressful situation.
In such critical times, the experience of a seasoned New Jersey family law attorney can make a huge difference in resolving child custody disputes. The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team is well-versed in handling all family law matters, including child custody arrangements, in Hunterdon County, NJ. To schedule a consultation, call (888) 535-3686 or connect with us online.
Child Custody Laws in New Jersey
Child custody is a legal term denoting the determination of how parents share responsibility in raising and caring for their child. This includes two crucial elements: the child's place of residence and who has the power to make major decisions about the child's upbringing, such as education and religious background. A detailed copy of New Jersey's child custody laws can be found here.
Child Custody Versus Child Support
It's essential to differentiate between child custody and child support from a legal perspective. Child custody refers to the legal guardianship and responsibility for a child, which could be awarded to one or both parents or, occasionally, to a third party. Child support is a separate matter concerned with defining the financial contributions of the non-custodial parent towards the child's upbringing. While child support can play a role in custody cases, it should not be confused with child custody as they are separate legal entities.
Do Grandparents Have Custody Rights in New Jersey?
Generally, parents' rights supersede grandparents' rights in New Jersey, although in exceptional cases, grandparents may seek court permission for child custody. More often, grandparents aim for visitation rights, allowing them to have regular contact with the child without having full custody. These rights are not automatically granted to grandparents, however, so to secure visitation rights, grandparents must show that it is in the child's best interests.
Types of Child Custody in New Jersey
New Jersey law acknowledges two primary forms of child custody: physical custody and legal custody.
Physical Custody: The Child's Living Arrangement
Physical custody pertains to the child's living conditions and daily care--i.e., where the child will live. The parent granted physical custody will be responsible for the child's day-to-day needs and routine care until they reach adulthood.
Legal Custody: Decision-Making Authority
Legal custody grants the power to make substantial decisions concerning the child's upbringing. While there are no specific legal rules governing these decisions, they usually involve matters like the choice of school, medical decisions, and decisions about religious upbringing.
Joint or Sole Custody
Custody (both physical and legal) can be granted jointly to both parents (joint custody) or solely to one parent (sole custody).
Joint custody involves both parents sharing the responsibility of raising the child. Joint custody includes:
- Joint physical custody: Parents share the obligation of physically caring for the child, with the child spending time at each parent's residence.
- Joint legal custody: Both parents share the duty of making significant decisions for the child.
Joint custody does not necessarily mean an equal division of time but signifies that the child has the opportunity to live with both parents, with the specific time spent in each household determined by the child's best interests.
Sole custody confers exclusive rights to one parent to have physical care of the child and/or make significant decisions on their behalf.
- Sole physical custody: Unless there are serious issues such as abuse or neglect, the other parent typically receives visitation rights if one parent receives sole custody.
- Sole legal custody: If a parent can demonstrate that the other parent is unfit, irresponsible, or abusive, the court may grant sole legal custody to one parent.
New Jersey Child Custody Orders
When ruling on child custody, the Family Court issues orders that specify how the parents will share responsibility for the child or which parent is to be responsible for the child's care and where the child will live. These orders fall into three main categories: emergency, temporary, and final custody orders.
- Emergency Custody Order: Effective for a brief period (e.g., a few days), this order may be issued in cases of suspected abuse, neglect, or risk of parental abduction. Emergency custody orders are generally granted in situations where the child is in immediate danger.
- Temporary Custody Order: This order remains in place until a final custody order hearing. It typically awards one parent sole physical custody and the other parent visitation rights until a final determination is made.
- Final Custody Order: Designed to last until the child turns 18 or an alternative arrangement is agreed upon, these orders can be altered or amended through another court petition.
Can Children Have a Say in Where They Live?
In New Jersey, children below the age of 18 are considered minors and are not legally permitted to make decisions about where they reside. However, during deliberations, the court will consider the child's viewpoint along with other factors such as the child's age, health status, well-being, the ability of the parents to provide care and any history of domestic violence or abuse. While the court's final decision on custody arrangements primarily focuses on the child's best interests, the child's preferences can significantly influence their living conditions.
As children age, their views hold more sway in court. Although judges might take into account the preferences of younger children, they rely more heavily on other factors to determine the child's best interests, given that young children may lack the emotional maturity necessary to express a genuine preference. For older children, however, their opinions will be more heavily weighted when issuing custody orders.
The Role of the Court in Custody Decisions
Courts are responsible for ensuring fair and impartial treatment of both parents when deciding child custody. There should be no preconceived notions about which parent the child should live with, and the court must consider several factors, such as the ability of the parent to provide a stable and secure environment, the child's relationship with each parent, and the child's wishes. The ultimate goal is to find the most suitable arrangement that serves the child's best interests, which may require a nuanced approach considering the unique circumstances of each case.
In optimal situations, courts tend to prefer a shared custody arrangement that allows children to maintain strong and affectionate relationships with both parents. However, a 50/50 custody split may not always be feasible for every family, in which case the court must make decisions based on appropriate legal provisions.
Elements Courts Consider in Child Custody Decisions
When courts decide on child custody arrangements, the overriding principle is the child's best interests. While this often leads to a 50/50 custody arrangement, it is not always the case. The court must consider various factors, such as:
- History of abuse by either or both parents;
- Domestic violence history;
- Mental or psychological issues;
- History of drug or alcohol abuse;
- Criminal records, such as convictions for sex offenses or domestic violence;
- Each parent's ability to provide a safe and stable environment for the child;
- The child's preference, if mature enough.
Certain factors carry more weight than others—for instance, convicted sex offenders are usually denied custody due to the high risk of harm to children. Similarly, a history of domestic violence can significantly influence the court's custody decision because of concerns about the child's safety and welfare.
Preserving Sibling Relationships
Generally speaking, the default position of the court is to keep siblings together in a custody arrangement whenever possible. This is based in part on the findings of a 2017 Child Welfare Outcomes Report by the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, which found that keeping siblings together fosters a more supportive and stable environment.
How Child Custody Works in Hunterdon County, NJ
In Hunterdon County, the Family Court handles issues related to child custody, divorce, visitation, child support, and related issues. New Jersey law encourages regular contact between minor children and their parents whenever possible, regardless of how custody is determined. Here's a snapshot of the typical child custody trial process in Hunterdon County, NJ:
Initiating Custody Proceedings
A parent can file a custody complaint with the Family Division of the Hunterdon County Justice Center at the following address:
Hunterdon County Justice Center-Family Division
65 Park Avenue
Flemington, NJ 08822
Family Division Manager
908-332-7700 ext. 13730
In emergency situations where the child is believed to be in imminent danger, custody cases may be heard on the same day, resulting in a temporary or emergency custody order while final arrangements are determined. Alternatively, custody can be requested as part of a divorce complaint.
Formulating Parenting Plans
Wherever possible, parents are urged to work together to draft a written parenting plan detailing their respective responsibilities for the child, including visitation schedules and plans for vacations and holidays. In most situations, the judge will approve the plan unless it is deemed not in 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 can't agree on a suitable arrangement, 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 parental rights have been violated, you can appeal a custody order either by filing a motion with the Family Court or appealing to the Superior Court. The Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm can provide you with an explanation of the appeals process for custody orders as it pertains to your unique case.
Modifying Custody Arrangements
Often, situations change for one or both parents after the establishment of a custody agreement. If the present custody order no longer aligns with the child's best interests, either parent can initiate a request to revise the agreement. The individual petitioning for this change must demonstrate that the modification is essential due to a substantial shift in circumstances.
Violating a Child Custody Order
Committing a violation or obstruction of a custody order is considered a criminal act. Examples of violations may include:
- Transporting the child out of state without consent
- Failing to hand over the child to the other parent
- Concealing or detaining the child
- Permitting the child to partake in hazardous activities.
Violating a custody order can result in criminal allegations, varying from second-degree to third-degree offenses, depending on the gravity of the violation. It could also have adverse effects on your custodial rights in relation to the child.
Do You Need an Attorney for Child Custody Issues?
You have the right to make your own case in child custody disputes without the help of a family law attorney, but your chances of success are much better with a good attorney in your corner. Here's why:
- The court procedure is complex and nuanced. There is complicated paperwork to fill out and strict deadlines to follow. A good attorney will navigate you through legal proceedings and ensure you adhere to important deadlines.
- Custody agreements might have unexpected repercussions. Your attorney will evaluate the pros and cons of any agreement to help you make a well-informed decision so you don't forfeit your rights or agree to something that may not be in the child's best interests.
- Disputes over custody may necessitate court intervention. If your case is brought before a judge, an attorney will aid you in formulating an argument substantiated by evidence that advocates for your position.
The Family Law Team at Lento Law Firm is committed to assisting you in understanding your rights and confidently addressing your child custody issues.
Child Custody Attorney in New Jersey
Family law issues involving child custody, visitation rights, and other related matters can be daunting and perplexing--and without proper legal representation, you have a greater risk of a less-than-optimal outcome for you and your child. The Lento Family Law Team possess extensive knowledge of the challenges that surface in child custody disputes in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, and they will guide you through the process with your child's best interests at heart. To arrange a consultation, contact us online or call us at (888) 535-3686.