When you and your partner decide to separate, it can be an emotionally wrenching process. Having to determine what's best for your children can make it even harder. It's common for child custody cases in New Jersey to be stressful and emotional, but having the right legal support can make the process easier for you and your family.
The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team can help you with family law matters. The team has assisted families throughout Middlesex County and New Jersey.
What Is Child Custody in Middlesex County, NJ?
Child custody refers to the responsibility for raising and caring for a child. During a child custody process in New Jersey, two parents can enter into a legal agreement that determines custody.
Custody agreements usually cover:
- Who the child should live with
- Which parent has the right to make big life decisions for their child, such as where to go to school, whether to participate in organized religion, where to go for medical care, etc.
New Jersey's child custody laws are comprehensive and provide family courts across the state with guidance on how to decide custody cases.
Child Custody vs. Child Support
You've probably come across the term “child support” when dealing with your custody matter. It's not the same thing as “child custody.”
- Child custody concerns who has the responsibility for caring for and raising the child.
- Child support concerns financial contributions from one parent to the other to help out with the child's care.
Generally, the parent who does not have primary custody helps pay for the child's necessities and upbringing. This financial contribution is decided with a child support agreement. Child support may be discussed during your child custody process, but they aren't the same.
Types of Child Custody in NJ
In New Jersey, parents can have physical custody or legal custody. They can also have joint or sole custody.
Physical custody refers to who the child will live with. This parent is responsible for providing daily care and remains in effect until the child turns 18.
Legal custody means a parent has the responsibility to make important decisions about a child's life. The law doesn't stipulate exactly what these decisions are, but some common examples include:
- Where the child goes to school and the type of education they get
- What type of medical care the child receives, and which doctor they visit
- Whether the child participates in organized religion and which one
Custody can be physical or legal. The courts can also award custody as joint or sole.
Joint custody means both parents have the responsibility of raising the child:
- Joint physical custody: The child spends a significant amount of time living with each parent.
- Joint legal custody: Both parents can make important life decisions for the child.
Joint custody can be a 50/50 split, but not always. “Joint” custody doesn't automatically mean that both parents get equal time with the child. For some families, a 50/50 split isn't feasible. The courts will come up with a living arrangement that takes the child's best interests into account.
Sole custody means that only one parent is responsible for raising the child:
- Sole physical custody: When one parent has sole physical custody, the other usually gets visitation rights. The only exception is when the other parent has a history of abuse or neglect.
- Sole legal custody: One parent can receive sole legal custody over their child if they can prove to the court that the other parent is irresponsible, abusive, or unfit to make decisions regarding the child.
Types of NJ Child Custody Orders
When the courts issue a custody order, it can be an emergency, temporary, or final order.
- Emergency custody orders only last for a few days. They are issued in an urgent situation when a child is at risk of abuse or neglect or the other parent is threatening to go to another state with the child.
- Temporary custody orders last from the time the custody paperwork is first filed until the final order is given. Usually, one parent receives sole physical custody temporarily, and the other parent has visitation rights while the custody process is ongoing.
- Final custody orders take effect once the custody agreement is in place, whether by the two parties agreeing or by a judge's order after a hearing. This custody order stays in place until the child turns 18.
Although final custody orders are meant to stay in effect until the child becomes a legal adult, they aren't always “final.” If your circumstances change, you can petition the court to modify the custody order.
Can Children Decide Which Parent to Live With?
In New Jersey, children under 18 don't have the final say on which parent they want to live with. However, the courts do take the child's opinion into account. The older the child is, the more weight the court gives to their opinion.
The court will hear a young child's preference on which parent to live with, but it will likely place more importance on other factors, such as the child's safety and best interests. The courts maintain that young children don't have the emotional maturity to express a true preference for one parent over the other.
How the Courts Decide Child Custody
When deciding a child custody case, the courts must remain neutral—they can't give preferential treatment to one parent or make assumptions. The courts do tend to favor a 50/50 split, with the child spending an equal amount of time with each parent. The idea is that a child should have the opportunity for a strong relationship with each parent as much as possible.
However, a 50/50 split isn't the best solution for every family. When it comes down to it, the courts will always choose what's in the best interest of the child.
Factors the Court Considers in Child Custody Cases in Middlesex County, NJ
In addition to considering a 50/50 split, the courts also take the following factors into account:
- Whether either parent has a history of abuse
- Whether there's a history of domestic violence in your relationship
- The child's preference if they are old enough
- Concerns about drug or alcohol use
- Mental or psychological well-being and related concerns
- Whether either parent has a criminal history
- The ability of either party to provide a safe and stable environment for the child
Convicted sex offenders usually don't get custody. Also, domestic violence convictions can have a significant impact on whether a parent gets custody or not.
The Child Custody Process in Middlesex County, NJ
In New Jersey, the law encourages a commitment to regular contact between minor children and their parents. In Middlesex County, the Family Division is responsible for hearing child custody cases, as well as cases involving child support, divorce, parenting time, and other family-related matters.
For child custody cases, the goal is always to do what's in the best interest of the child. This principle is present at each step of the New Jersey child custody process.
Filing for Custody
One way to start the custody process is by having one parent file for custody with the family division of the Middlesex County superior court. If there's an emergency, such as a risk of physical harm to the child, a judge can issue an emergency custody order the same day you apply.
Another way to begin the custody process is to request it as part of your divorce proceedings.
Creating a Parenting Plan
After custody is filed, the two parents are asked to come up with a parenting plan. This plan must be written out and state what each person's responsibilities are. It should include details about visitation times and where the child spends holidays and school vacations.
Once the parenting plan is ready and you both agree to it, you can have a judge review and sign it. Unless it's explicitly not in the child's best interest, the judge will most likely sign it.
If you and the other parent cannot agree on the parenting plan, the court may ask you to attend mediation. There will also be a custody evaluation to help the court determine what the child's best interests are.
If mediation doesn't lead to an agreement, the case goes to court. Both parties can present evidence at a hearing before a judge. The judge then decides what the child's custody arrangement should be.
After the judge gives a custody order, you or the other parent can still appeal it. You may have to file a motion with the Family Division in Middlesex County or go to Superior Court.
At the Lento Law Firm, our team can help you with the custody appeals process to ensure you're filing the right paperwork.
Can You Modify a Custody Agreement?
Although custody orders are “final,” they can still be modified if your circumstances change. You can apply to modify the custody order by filing a petition with the courts. You'll have to prove that the modification is necessary and that you've had a legitimate change of situation. One example might be that you want to move out of state for your job. In this case, you'd most likely need to update the custody agreement.
What Happens if a Parent Violates a Child Custody Order?
If you or the other parent violates the custody order you have in place, it's a second-degree or third-degree offense in New Jersey. Examples of interfering with a custody order that could get you in trouble are:
- Taking a child out of state without the other parent's permission
- Failing to return the child to the other parent when you're supposed to
- Detaining or concealing the child from the other parent
- Neglecting the child or allowing them to participate in dangerous activities
When one parent interferes with a custody order, it prevents the other parent from having their normal parenting time with the child. It can also be disruptive for the child, who is used to a regular schedule.
Attempting to “evade the jurisdiction of the New Jersey courts” by violating a custody order is usually a third-degree offense. It can be a second-degree offense, however, if the child is taken out of the country or the child's whereabouts are unknown for more than 24 hours.
Do You Need an Attorney for a Child Custody Matter in NJ?
You are not required to have a lawyer to file for child custody in New Jersey. It's highly recommended that you have one, however. A family law attorney can make the process go much more smoothly for you and ensure that you don't make costly mistakes navigating your child custody case.
An attorney can help with:
- Filing court paperwork properly and on time
- Simplifying the court process for you so you understand each step
- Preparing you before each court proceeding so you know what to expect
- Explaining the pros and cons of any custody agreements before you sign
- Helping you make an informed, reasonable decision concerning your child custody order
- Representing you in court if your case goes in front of a judge
- Helping you gather evidence to support your position
At the Lento Law Firm, we'll ensure you know what your rights are in the New Jersey child custody process. We can help you deal with this matter with confidence.
Lawyer for Child Custody in Middlesex County, NJ
When you're dealing with child custody, visitation, parenting plans, and other family matters, it can quickly become confusing and overwhelming. Retaining an experienced Middlesex County attorney can help make things clearer for you. The Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm understand that you and your family are going through a challenging time. You need support and empathy just as much as you need legal guidance. We'll provide you with both. We'll carefully evaluate your case, explain your options, and help you choose the best path for your family. Contact us online or call us at 888-535-3686 to book a consultation.