Ocean County, New Jersey, families face many legal issues when the parents make the decision to separate. Chief among them are the many decisions surrounding the care of their child or children. Child custody is notoriously emotionally charged, which can often complicate the legal process. Finding legal help is essential to making smart, informed choices for your family.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Family Law Team have extensive experience in family law, including custody cases in Ocean County, New Jersey. To start the conversation, call (888) 535-3686 or contact us here.
What You Need to Know About Custody
When families divorce, the courts determine who has the legal responsibility for caring for and making decisions regarding the child's schooling, where and with whom the child lives, and if they are raised within a particular religious faith. It's a serious responsibility that informs the person that child will become. That's part of why custody cases are sometimes so contentious.
Custody laws that will affect Ocean County residents are the rules that govern the state of New Jersey. All the state's child custody laws are laid out in Title 9 of the New Jersey Statutes.
Who Gets Custody? Who Pays Child Support?
When parents make the difficult decision to divorce, figuring out child custody isn't always as simple as splitting time or financial support 50-50. Many factors come into play. And determinations of who pays for what, including housing, medical bill, and schooling, are made through a legal arrangement so that the parent with primary custody doesn't shoulder the financial responsibility alone.
But determining the percentages of financial support each parent will be tasked with providing is a completely separate consideration from the custody question. While the issues may overlap, they are not the same.
The Role of Grandparents
Often grandparents play a big part in figuring out childcare arrangements when parents divorce. But legally, grandparents generally take a back seat to the interest of the parents—even if those parents are divorced. In fact, until a court decides to grant it, visitation is not guaranteed to grandparents. Under certain circumstances, grandparents may try to secure visitation rights through the legal system. This is only granted if it is in the best interest of the child. Visitation means that the grandparents can play a role in the child's life.
New Jersey: Types of Child Custody
Custody may seem like a simple term to understand. But when it's taken in the legal context, it has ramifications that affect decisions throughout a child's life. In New Jersey, custody of a child is either physical or legal—where the child resides and who can make decisions about them.
Physical custody affects the day-in, day-out life of the child. It dictates which parent the child will live with and be provided for until the age of 18.
But physical custody isn't the only consideration that affects a child's life. The other form of custody—legal custody—tasks the parent with making decisions that will impact the future of the child. The parent with legal custody makes these important decisions for the child, including those involving the child's education, religion, and healthcare.
Joint Custody or Sole Custody
Part of what makes navigating child-rearing responsibilities after divorce complicated is learning about the rules surrounding joint or sole custody. Either joint or sole custody may be awarded by the courts.
Joint custody means that the responsibility of making all the decisions involved in raising a child is shared by both parents. But "joint custody" comes in two types. It can be physical, in which the parents divide the responsibility of caring for the child physically. Or it can be legal, where both parents are responsible for making important decisions for the child.
Joint custody can be divided unequally, meaning that one parent may get majority custody while the other parent gets less. The child may spend weekdays at one parent's house and weekends at the other's. Or they may spend the school year living with one parent and the summers with the other parent. The determination of percentage of time the child spends with one parent or the other will be determined by the court, which is tasked with looking out for the child's best interest.
Sole custody occurs when one parent lives with and makes decisions for the child. Under these circumstances, the other parent will be awarded visitation, unless a history of neglect or abuse prohibits it. Sole legal custody happens when that parent can prove that the other parent is unfit—whether irresponsible or abusive—and cannot care for the child.
New Jersey Child Custody Orders
Courts preside over cases of custody and release decisions that dictate just how much contact children and parents can have post-divorce. "Custody orders" are issued by the court when it makes a custody determination. The three primary types of custody determinations are temporary, emergency, and final.
Temporary Custody Order
Temporary custody orders are short-term. They are only valid until a hearing takes place to determine long-term custody. With temporary custody orders, it is common for one parent to get sole physical custody and the other to get rights to visitation.
Emergency Custody Order
Emergency orders are also short-term. They are issued in cases of neglect or abuse. They can also be issued if the court believes that the parent may take the child out of state without permission from the other parent.
Final Custody Order
These orders last until the parents make another arrangement or until the child reaches their 18th birthday. In this way, the order is "final." That doesn't mean, however, that it is permanent. Final custody orders can be changed or amended by filing another petition with the court.
Can Children Choose Who They Live With?
As long as a child is a minor under the age of 18, New Jersey law states that they cannot decide who they live with. It is the job of the courts to get information and make an informed decision on who the child is raised with.
The youngest children have the least say in their custody because they are considered too young to understand or process the situation. Courts, then, are tasked with considering all the information in the child's case, including input from specialists and professionals who can provide expert information to determine the child's best interest.
As a child grows older, the courts will consider the opinion of the minor. In fact, as the child ages and grows in emotional maturity, the courts grant more weight to the child's opinion.
How Custody Determinations Are Made
Child custody determinations are made by the court. This is done through an assessment of what the best interests of the child are. That means that there cannot be any preconceived ideas about who makes a better parent or who could provide a better household. This can be challenging because it is a decision that, by its nature, is subjective. But the court must make
In child custody actions, the courts cannot give any parent preferential treatment. The court, in fact, tends to encourage 50-50 custody agreements in order to provide the child with the opportunity to develop a relationship with both parents equally. While this is an understandable goal on the part of the courts, the truth is that 50-50 arrangements do not always suit the best interests of the child. And that is when the courts must step in and make their judgments based on statutory provisions.
Some factors will dictate their decisions, including any history of abuse, psychological concerns, criminal history, and the ability of the parent to provide a safe and stable environment for the child.
Can Siblings Stay Together?
Thanks to a 2017 report by the New Jersey Department of Children and Families that found that placing siblings together creates a more supportive and stable environment, courts now attempt to keep siblings together whenever possible.
The Child Custody Process in Ocean County, New Jersey
The Family Court is responsible for hearing matters involving child custody and divorce with the child's best interest in mind and proceed in a series of steps:
Filing for Custody
The first step in sorting out child custody is one parent filing for custody with the family division of the county court. In Ocean County, family court hearings are held at the Ocean County Courthouse, located at 118 Washington St., Toms River, NJ 08754. You can also request custody in your divorce complaint.
Creating a Parenting Plan
Parenting plans are written by parents working together to outline their individual responsibilities. It may include visitation plans and considerations for vacations.
You should get a judge's signature on this agreement.
The Family Court can help you find a mediator if you cannot reach an agreement on your own. The court may conduct a custody evaluation to determine what's in the child's best interest.
If an agreement cannot be reached, the custody case may move to a formal hearing in which both parties make their cases before a judge. Based on the evidence, the judge will make a decision based on the child's best interest.
Any decision made in the hearing can be appealed to a Superior Court. The Lento Law Firm Team can explain how custody order appeals work as the process relates to your case.
Modifying Custody Agreements
Sometimes circumstances change, and the order is no longer in the child's best interests. In such cases, you can ask for a modification of the custody order. A judge will consider the modifications and see if they are in the best interest of the child.
Violating a Child Custody Order
If the other parent violates or interferes with the terms of the custody order, they are committing an offense. This includes neglecting the child, failing to return the child to the other parent, detaining the child, or taking the child out of state without the other parent's permission.
This behavior could even be considered a second-degree offense if the child is taken out of the country or if the child's whereabouts are not known for more than 24 hours.
Do I Need an Attorney?
Custody cases can be complicated and have time limits. There may be some unpredictability or unforeseen consequences. A lawyer can help you navigate all of these situations.
The Lento Law Firm Team can inform you of your rights and help you deal with your custody matter with confidence.