When parents split up, one of the most important issues they need to resolve is how to care for their child or children now that they're no longer a couple. It's an intense and emotional decision that often becomes heated and contentious. At this critical time, it's important to work with an experienced legal team who can help you make the best decisions for you and your family.
The knowledgeable Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm can help with all family law matters in Sussex County, NJ, including child custody arrangements. Call us at 888-535-3686, or contact us online to schedule a meeting to find out how we can help you during this difficult time.
What Is Child Custody?
Child custody refers to the arrangement that establishes how the responsibility for raising and caring for a child is allocated between parents. Child custody determines two major issues:
- Who the child lives with, and
- Who has the right to make significant decisions about the child's upbringing, such as where they go to school and what religion they'll practice.
Child Custody vs. Child Support
Child custody shouldn't be confused with child support. Child support is a legal arrangement that's crafted to make sure a parent who doesn't have primary custody of a child contributes financially toward their care and upbringing. Child support may be relevant in custody matters, but it's a separate issue that has its own separate legal considerations.
Rights of Grandparents
In New Jersey, courts generally give parental rights priority over grandparents' rights. In some rare circumstances, a grandparent can petition the court for child custody, but in most cases, grandparents can only petition the court for visitation rights.
Visitation entitles a grandparent to spend time with their grandchild and be part of their life. Even in such cases, though, the grandparent must show that visitation is in the child's best interests – it won't be awarded automatically.
Types of Child Custody in New Jersey
There are two main types of custody in New Jersey: physical custody and legal custody.
Who the Child Will Live With - Physical Custody
Physical custody determines who the child will live with. The parent who has physical custody is responsible for providing the child's daily, necessary, and routine care to the child until the child turns 18 or the custody agreement is modified or amended before then.
Caring for the Child - Legal Custody
A parent who has legal custody of a child is responsible for making significant decisions on the child's behalf, including, but not limited to:
- Which school the child attends.
- What kind of medical care the child receives.
- Whether the child will belong to a certain religious faith.
Joint or Sole Custody
Courts award custody either jointly to both parents in the form of a joint custody arrangement or solely to one parent as sole custody.
In a joint custody arrangement, both parents are responsible for raising the child. If the parents have joint physical custody, the child will spend a significant amount of time living with each parent. If they have joint legal custody, the parents share the responsibility for making decisions for the child.
Joint custody doesn't always translate to an equal, 50/50 split in terms of time and decision-making. Joint custody arrangements will always be based on what's in the child's best interest and might look different from case to case and family to family.
Sole custody means that the child lives with one parent only or that only one parent makes decisions for them.
It isn't very common for one parent to receive sole physical custody of a child. Generally speaking, unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as a history of child abuse or neglect, the other parent usually gets visitation.
In cases where one parent can demonstrate that the other parent is abusive, irresponsible, or otherwise unfit or unable to make decisions regarding the child, the court may award one parent sole legal custody.
Types of Child Custody Orders in New Jersey
When courts make their custody determinations, they issue custody orders. There are three main types of custody orders: temporary, emergency, and final.
Temporary custody orders last only until there's a final custody order. It's common for temporary orders to give one parent sole physical custody and visitation rights to the other.
Emergency custody orders are somewhat similar to temporary orders in that they only last a short time. Emergency orders can last for a period of just a few days and are issued in situations where there's child abuse or neglect or if there's a risk that one parent will flee the state with the child.
Final custody orders are generally supposed to last until a child turns 18. Before then, however, the parents can modify or amend the agreement due to changing circumstances or to better serve the child's best interests.
When Can a Child Decide Who to Live With?
The age of majority in New Jersey is 18. Before then, kids can't have a definitive say in who they should live with, but the courts will generally consider their opinion when making their custody decisions.
Generally speaking, the older the child is, the more weight courts will give the child's opinion about where they want to live. Although courts might give some consideration to a young child's opinion, they'll often prioritize other factors when deciding where the child should live and what's in their best interest.
The Court's Role in Making Custody Determinations
Although courts can't give any parent preferential treatment in custody agreements or make assumptions about who a child should live with, they do tend to favor equal, "50/50" custody arrangements wherever possible. This is to help ensure that children have strong relationships with both of their parents.
In order to avoid arbitrary outcomes, the courts make their custody determinations by applying the relevant statutory provisions.
How New Jersey Courts Determine Child Custody
In child custody cases, the court's goal is to always make decisions based on what's in the child's best interest. In many cases, custody is split evenly between the parties, but this isn't always the case. Courts carefully consider many factors when making their decisions.
Generally, courts consider the following factors:
- The parties' ability to provide a stable, safe environment
- Whether there's a history of domestic violence between the parties
- The child's preference (if they are mature enough to make this determination)
- Whether there are any concerns about the parties' mental or psychological health
- Whether there's a history of problems with drugs or alcohol
- Whether either party has a criminal history, including domestic violence convictions or sex offenses.
Convicted sex offenders, for example, generally aren't awarded custody, and domestic violence convictions can also jeopardize a parent's custody arrangements.
Will Siblings Be Placed Together?
In 2017, the New Jersey Department of Children and Families published a Child Welfare Outcomes Report. Their findings suggest that placing siblings together creates a more supportive and stable environment. Courts have recognized that this is the preferred physical custody arrangement when possible. The New Jersey Legislature has committed to encouraging continual contact between minor children and their parents.
The Child Custody Process in Sussex County, NJ
In Sussex County, the Family Court is responsible for hearing matters related to child custody, divorce, parenting time, . This agency also has jurisdiction in Morris County. Here's a summary of how child custody cases typically proceed in Sussex County.
File for Custody
Either parent can file for custody with the family division of the local county court. In Sussex County, this is the Sussex County Family Division.
If it's an emergency custody situation – such as when the child is in immediate danger – a judge may hear the application on the same day and issue a temporary or emergency order. You can also request custody in your divorce complaint during your divorce proceedings.
A parenting plan is very much what it sounds like: a written plan that sets forth both parties' parental responsibilities. Parents should work together to create a parenting plan, and it should include specific details such as visitation days and times and specific arrangements for vacations and holidays.
The agreement should be reviewed and signed by a judge. Usually, unless a plan clearly isn't in the child's best interests, judges will agree to it.
If the parties fail to reach an agreement, the Family Court will encourage them to use a mediator. At this stage, the parties are expected to participate in mediation unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as a history of domestic violence.
The court may conduct a custody evaluation, which will help them determine what's in the child's best interests.
If there's still no agreement at that point, the case proceeds to a formal hearing where both parties present evidence in support of their case. A judge then determines how custody should be allocated based on the evidence the parties present.
It's difficult to predict the outcome of a hearing. The court should, however, always be directed based on what's best for the child's welfare.
Both parties have the right to appeal a custody order. This may involve filing a motion with the Family Court or appealing to the Superior Court. The experienced attorneys at the Lento Law Firm can help you put together an effective appeal and walk you through every step of the complicated appeals process.
Modifying Custody Agreements
It might be possible to modify your custody order. As time goes on, circumstances can change such that a modification would be in the child's best interests. For example, you might want to move out of state in order to take a better, higher-paying job.
Keep in mind that there's no guarantee that a judge will modify a custody order. If you want to modify the order, the burden will be on you to show that there's been a change in circumstances, that the modification is necessary, and that the change is in the child's best interests.
Violating a Child Custody Order
In some cases, it's a crime to violate or interfere with the terms of a custody order once it's in place. Examples of violating a custody order include:
- Taking or detaining a child with the purpose of concealing the child and depriving the other parent of custody or parenting time with the child
- Taking, detaining, or concealing the child either within NJ or out of state in order to evade the jurisdiction of NJ courts
- Failing to return the child to the other parent
- Neglecting the child or allowing them to engage in dangerous behaviors
- Taking, detaining, or concealing the child in violation of the custody agreement or a parenting time order that's in place.
Interference with custody is considered a second-degree offense if the child is taken, detained, enticed, or concealed outside the United States or for more than 24 hours. Otherwise, interference with custody is generally considered a third-degree offense.
Do I Need an Attorney for a Child Custody Matter in Sussex County?
Although it's possible to file for custody or reach a custody arrangement in Sussex County without a lawyer, there are many advantages to working with an experienced attorney.
First, the family court process is complicated. There are many important deadlines that can't be missed. A lawyer will ensure you understand how to navigate proceedings and meet any specific deadlines.
Next, the full implications of your custody agreement might not be immediately apparent to you. It's possible that the agreement provides for things that you didn't anticipate or don't remember agreeing to. A knowledgeable family law attorney can explain the terms of the agreement to you, discuss its pros and cons, and give you the information you need to make fully informed decisions.
Last, you might need to go to court to resolve the differences with your ex. If this happens, you'll be glad that you have an attorney who can help you navigate the court process and can help you craft effective arguments to ensure that your side of the story is heard. The experienced Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm can help you confidently present your case.
Child Custody Lawyer in Sussex County, New Jersey
Child custody battles, figuring out visitation rights, and other family law matters can be complicated and emotionally exhausting. An experienced family law attorney can help you during this difficult time. The Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm has been helping clients in Sussex County and throughout New Jersey with custody matters for many years. We'll work with you to assess your case and devise a strategy that will yield the best possible outcome for you and your family. Contact us online, or call us at 888-535-3686 to speak with a member of our Family Law Team.