In all child custody matters in Somerset County, New Jersey, the child's best interest is the primary concern. However, the emotional upheaval that accompanies separation or divorce can make this question complex and murky. Disputes over child custody can often escalate into emotionally intense, intricate, and distressing situations. When parents fail to agree, the courts have to step in, potentially worsening an already tense situation. Without proper legal representation throughout the process, you run the risk of having an unwanted custody arrangement forced on you--or worse, losing custody rights altogether.
Having an experienced New Jersey family law attorney can significantly impact the resolution of child custody disagreements. The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team is highly experienced in managing all aspects of family law, including child custody issues, in Somerset County, NJ. To schedule a consultation, call (888) 535-3686 or reach out to us online.
Understanding New Jersey's Child Custody Laws
The term "child custody" from a legal standpoint is the determination of how parents will divide the responsibilities of raising and caring for a child. This includes both the child's living arrangements and who holds the authority to make significant decisions regarding the child's upbringing, such as educational and religious matters. You can find comprehensive information on New Jersey's child custody laws here.
Classifications of Child Custody in New Jersey
New Jersey law recognizes two main types of child custody: physical custody and legal custody.
Physical Custody: Where the Child Will Live
Physical custody refers to where the child resides and which parent provides daily care. The parent awarded physical custody is responsible for the child's day-to-day needs.
Legal Custody: Who Decides for the Child
Legal custody confers the power to make significant decisions about the child's upbringing. While there are no explicit legal guidelines governing these decisions, they usually involve education, medical care, and religious upbringing choices.
Joint or Sole Custody
Both physical and legal custody can be assigned jointly to both parents (joint custody) or solely to one parent (sole custody).
Joint custody means both parents share the responsibility of raising the child. Joint custody can refer to:
- Joint physical custody--parents equally share the duty of physically caring for the child, with the child dividing their time between each parent's home; AND/OR
- Joint legal custody--both parents share the responsibility of making important decisions for the child.
Joint custody doesn't imply an equal division of time but indicates that the child has the chance to reside with both parents. The specific amount of time spent in each household is determined by the child's best interests.
Sole custody grants one parent exclusive rights to physically care for the child and/or make significant decisions on their behalf.
- Sole physical custody: If one parent receives sole custody, the other parent typically retains visitation rights, barring serious issues like abuse or neglect.
- Sole legal custody: If a parent can prove that the other parent is unfit, irresponsible, or abusive, the court may grant sole legal custody to one parent.
Do Grandparents Possess Custody Rights in New Jersey?
Typically, parental rights take precedence over grandparents' rights in New Jersey. However, in exceptional circumstances (for example, if both parents are deemed unfit), grandparents may petition the court for child custody. More frequently, grandparents seek visitation rights, which allow regular contact with the child without full custody. These rights are not automatically conferred to grandparents, so to secure visitation, grandparents must demonstrate that it is in the child's best interests.
New Jersey Child Custody Orders
When adjudicating child custody, the Family Court issues orders outlining how the parents will share responsibility for the child or which parent will be responsible for the child's care and residence. These orders fall into three primary categories: emergency, temporary, and final custody orders.
- Emergency Custody Order: This short-term order (effective for a few days) may be issued in cases of suspected abuse, neglect, or risk of parental abduction. Emergency custody orders are typically granted when the child is believed to be in immediate danger.
- Temporary Custody Order: This order remains in effect until a final custody order hearing. It generally awards one parent sole physical custody and the other parent visitation rights until a definitive ruling is made.
- Final Custody Order: This is meant to last until the child turns 18 or another arrangement is agreed upon; these orders can be modified or amended through another court petition.
Children's Influence on Their Living Arrangements
In New Jersey, individuals under the age of 18 are deemed minors and do not possess the legal authority to decide their living location. However, during custody deliberations, the court takes into consideration the child's perspective along with other elements such as their age, health, overall well-being, parents' caretaking capability, and any instances of domestic violence or abuse. While the court's final verdict on custody mainly centers around the child's best interests, the child's preferences can have a significant impact on their living arrangements.
As children grow older, their opinions carry more weight in court proceedings. Although the preferences of younger children may be considered, judges tend to rely more on other factors to determine the child's best interests, given that younger children may lack the emotional maturity necessary to express a genuine preference. For older children, however, their opinions will be weighted more heavily when issuing custody orders.
Court's Role in Determining Child Custody
Courts bear the responsibility of ensuring fair treatment for both parents in child custody decisions. Optimally, there should be no preconceived bias about which parent the child should reside with. The court will consider multiple factors, including:
- The ability of each parent to provide a stable and secure environment;
- The child's relationship with each parent; and
- What the child desires.
The ultimate objective is to identify the most suitable setup that serves the child's best interests, which may necessitate a nuanced approach given the unique circumstances of each case.
Under ideal circumstances, courts favor a shared custody arrangement that allows children to maintain strong, loving relationships with both parents. However, a 50/50 custody split may not always be viable for every family, so in those cases, the court must make decisions based on relevant legal provisions.
Factors Courts Consider in Child Custody Decisions
The primary guiding principle for courts in deciding child custody arrangements is the child's best interest. While this often leads to a 50/50 custody arrangement, it is not always the case. The court must consider various factors, such as:
- A history of abuse by either or both parents;
- Past instances of domestic violence;
- Mental or psychological issues;
- History of drug or alcohol abuse;
- Criminal records, including 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 they are mature enough.
Certain factors hold 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 out of concern for the child's safety and welfare.
Importance of Sibling Bonds
In general, the court's default stance is to keep siblings together in a custody arrangement whenever possible. This is partially based 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.
The Child Custody Process in Somerset County, NJ
In Somerset County, the Family Court deals with issues related to child custody, divorce, visitation, child support, and other related matters. New Jersey law promotes regular contact between minor children and their parents whenever feasible, regardless of the child custody determination. Here's a snapshot of the typical child custody trial process in Somerset County, NJ:
Initiating Custody Proceedings
A parent can initiate a custody case by filing a complaint with the Family Division of the Somerset County Court House at the following address:
Somerset County Court House-Family Division
20 North Bridge Street
PO Box 3000
Somerville, New Jersey 08876-1262
PHONE CONTACT: Maryann Millman-Stives, Family Division Manager
908-332-7700 ext. 13730
In situations where the child is believed to be in immediate danger, custody cases may be heard on the same day, resulting in a temporary or emergency custody order while final arrangements are made. Alternatively, custody can be requested as part of a divorce complaint.
Developing Parenting Plans
Parents are encouraged to collaborate in creating 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 as long as it does not conflict with the best interests of the child.
If parents cannot agree on a parenting plan, the Family Court recommends mediation to facilitate an agreement outside of court.
If the parents can't find common ground in mediation, the custody case proceeds to a formal hearing where both parties present evidence supporting their case. The judge will then determine the custody arrangement 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 guide you through the appeals process for custody orders as it pertains to your unique case.
Modifying Custody Agreements
Over time, circumstances for one or both parents often change after a custody agreement has been put into place. If the current custody order is no longer in line with the child's best interests, a parent has the right to propose modifications to the agreement. The parent advocating for this change must prove that the adjustment is necessary due to a significant change in circumstances.
Breaching a Child Custody Order
Any breach or obstruction of a custody order is regarded as a criminal offense. Violations may consist of:
- Moving the child out of state without permission
- Not releasing the child to the other parent
- Hiding or withholding the child
- Allowing the child to engage in dangerous activities.
Violating a custody order can lead to criminal charges, ranging from second-degree to third-degree offenses, based on the severity of the violation. It could also negatively affect your custodial rights concerning the child.
Is an Attorney Necessary for Child Custody Disputes?
While you have the right to represent yourself in child custody conflicts without a family law attorney, obtaining professional legal help significantly increases your chances of success for the following key reasons:
- Court procedures are intricate and nuanced, requiring detailed paperwork and adherence to strict timelines. A skilled attorney will guide you through these legal proceedings and ensure you meet all critical deadlines.
- Custody agreements may have unforeseen consequences. Your attorney will assess the advantages and disadvantages of any agreement to aid you in making an informed decision, preventing unintentional forfeiture of your rights or agreement to a deal not serving the child's best interests.
- Custody disputes may require judicial intervention. In such cases, an attorney will assist in developing a well-supported argument advocating for your position.
The Family Law Team at Lento Law Firm is dedicated to helping you understand your rights and confidently navigate your child custody concerns.
Child Custody Attorney in New Jersey
Dealing with family law matters around child custody, visitation rights, and related issues can be intimidating and confusing. The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team has comprehensive knowledge of the complexities involved in child custody disputes in Somerset County, New Jersey. They're committed to guiding you through the process to give you and your child the best chances for a favorable outcome that works to the child's benefit. To schedule a consultation, contact us online or call us at (888) 535-3686.