When parents split up, one of the most important things they need to sort out is how they're going to care for their child or children now that they're no longer a couple. It's a complicated, intense, and emotional issue that can become contentious. During this challenging time, it's important to have an experienced legal team at your side to help you make the best decisions for you and your family.
The Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm has years of experience helping clients in Warren County and throughout New Jersey with custody issues and other sensitive family law matters. 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 is the arrangement between parents that sets forth how the responsibility for raising and caring for a child or children is allocated between them. Basically, child custody determines two major issues:
- Who the child or children live 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 belong to.
Child Custody vs. Child Support
Child custody is very different from child support. Child support is a legal arrangement that ensures that a parent who doesn't have primary custody of a child contributes financially toward the child's care and upbringing. Child support can be a relevant issue in some custody matters, but it's a separate issue that has its own separate legal considerations.
Grandparents' Rights in Custody Matters
In New Jersey, courts generally prioritize parental rights over grandparents' rights. In some rare cases, a grandparent might be able to successfully petition the court for child custody. In most cases, however, grandparents can generally only petition the court for visitation rights.
Visitation entitles a grandparent to spend time with their grandchild and be part of their life. In order to obtain visitation rights, grandparents have to show that visitation is in the child's best interests – visitation won't be awarded automatically.
Types of Child Custody in New Jersey
There are two main types of custody that New Jersey courts decide on: physical custody and legal custody.
Physical Custody: Who the Child Will Live With
Physical custody determines who the child or children will live with. The parent who is granted physical custody is responsible for providing the child's daily, necessary, and routine care until the child turns 18 or if the parents modify or amend the custody agreement before then.
Legal Custody: Who Will Care for the Child
A parent who's granted legal custody of a child is responsible for making significant decisions on the child's behalf, including, but not limited to:
- Where the child attends school
- What kind of medical care the child receives
- What, if any, religious faith the child will have
Joint or Sole Custody
When deciding custody matters, courts award custody either jointly to both parents or solely to one parent.
In a joint custody arrangement, both parents are responsible for raising the child. In situations where the court awards joint physical custody, the child will spend a significant amount of time living with each parent. If the parents 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 between the parents in terms of time and decision-making. This is because joint custody arrangements are based on what's in the child's best interest, and so joint custody arrangements 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 drug use or a history of child abuse or neglect, the other parent usually gets visitation.
In cases where one parent demonstrates that the other parent is abusive, irresponsible, or otherwise unfit or incapable of making decisions for the child, the court may award one parent sole legal custody.
Types Child Custody Orders in New Jersey
When courts make their custody determinations, they issue one of three main types of custody orders: temporary, emergency, and final.
Temporary custody orders last only until there's a final custody order in place. It's common for temporary orders to give one parent sole physical custody and visitation rights to the other while the custody process is in progress.
Emergency custody orders 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 or children. Emergency custody orders can last for a period of just a few days or as long as the court deems is necessary to protect the child's best interests.
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 live with. Courts may or may not take minor children's opinions into consideration when they're making their custody decisions. It would depend on the circumstances of the case.
Generally speaking, the older the child is, the more weight courts will give the child's opinion about where they want to live. In every case, though, the courts will base their decisions on the best interests of the child.
The Court's Role in Making Custody Determinations
Although courts can't favor one parent over another in custody agreements or make assumptions about who a child should live with, they generally 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 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 or in the home
- 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 the parties have 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.
The New Jersey Legislature is committed to encouraging continual contact between minor children and their parents.
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 for them. Courts have recognized that this is the preferred physical custody arrangement whenever possible.
The Child Custody Process in Warren County, NJ
In Warren County, the Family Court is responsible for hearing matters arising out of a family relationship, such as child custody, child support, paternity, divorce, and parenting time. Here's a summary of how child custody cases typically proceed in Warren County.
Filing for Custody
Either parent can file for custody with the family division of the local county court. In Warren County, this is the Warren County Family Division.
If it's an emergency custody situation – the child is in immediate danger, for example – 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 parents' parental responsibilities. Parents should work together to create their 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 approve a parenting plan the parents create together.
If the parties fail to reach an agreement, the Family Court will encourage them to use a mediator. At this point in the process, the court will expect the parties to participate in mediation unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as a history of domestic violence or abuse.
The court may also 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 then 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, so it's best to be prepared for anything. The court should, however, always be basing its decisions on the child's best interests.
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 walk you through every step of the complicated appeals process and help you put together an effective appeal.
Modifying Custody Agreements
It's possible in certain situations to modify your child 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.
If you want to modify a custody order, you'll have the burden of showing that there's been a change in circumstances, that the modification is necessary, and that the change is in the child's best interests. There's no guarantee that a judge will modify a custody order.
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. Custody order violations 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 New Jersey or out of the state in order to evade the jurisdiction of New Jersey courts
- Failing to return the child to the other parent
- Taking, detaining, or concealing the child in violation of the custody agreement or a parenting time order that's in place.
In New Jersey, interference with a custody order is considered a second-degree offense if the child is taken, detained, or concealed for more than 24 hours or outside the United States. Otherwise, it's generally considered a third-degree offense.
Why You Need an Attorney for a Child Custody Matter in Warren County
Although it's possible to file for custody or reach a custody arrangement in Warren County without a lawyer, there are many advantages to working with an experienced family law attorney.
New Jersey's family court process is complicated. There are many important deadlines that can't be missed, and even a minor mistake can unnecessarily drag out the case or result in an adverse ruling against you. An experienced lawyer will help you understand the process and ensure that you meet all important deadlines.
Custody agreements can be confusing and difficult to understand. 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.
You might also need to go to court to resolve your custody matter. If this happens, you'll be glad that you have an attorney who can help you navigate New Jersey's family 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 every step of the way.
Child Custody Lawyer in Warren County, New Jersey
Matters involving child custody, visitation, and other family law matters can be complicated and emotionally draining, and the stakes couldn't be higher. An experienced family law attorney can be invaluable during this difficult time. The Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm has years of experience assisting clients with custody issues in Warren County and throughout New Jersey. We'll work with you to ensure that your rights are protected and help you achieve the best possible outcome for you and your child. Contact us online or call us at 888-535-3686 to speak with a member of our Family Law Team.