When you and your spouse have children, you'll have several legal issues to resolve if you decide to separate. Child custody matters can get contentious and emotionally charged, making it a difficult process for everyone involved. With the right legal support, you can make the most reasonable decisions for your child and your family.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm can help with your child custody arrangement after your separation. Our team has helped couples across New Jersey, including in Burlington County. This guide to child custody will help you understand what your rights are and what actions you can take concerning your family after you and your spouse separate or get a divorce in Burlington County.
Child Custody in Burlington County
New Jersey Family Courts are responsible for hearing child custody cases. Since 1944, the courts have formally stated that custody decisions are made based on what is in the best interest of the child.
Types of Child Custody in Burlington County
In New Jersey, the courts can make physical and legal child custody orders:
- Physical custody is awarded to the parent whom the child will live with. They provide the child's daily and routine care. The responsibility for physical custody remains with this parent until the child turns 18. In most cases, the other parent will have designated parenting time based on a visitation schedule.
- Legal custody awards make one or both parents responsible for making important decisions on behalf of the child. Examples may include educational, religious, or medically-related decisions.
- Joint custody means that both parents have the responsibility to raise the child. With joint physical custody, the child takes turns living with each parent. Major decisions in the child's life are shared between both parents. Joint custody isn't always a 50/50 split. The courts may decide that the child spends more time with one parent over the other based on what's best for the child.
- Sole custody is when the child lives with one parent only, and that parent is solely responsible for the child's major life decisions. Sole physical or legal custody is usually only granted if there's a history of abuse or one parent can prove that the other is unfit and irresponsible to make decisions regarding the child.
New Jersey's custody laws are comprehensive on the types of custody that are awarded to parents, as well as other matters like child support and the rights of grandparents.
Child Custody vs. Child Support
People often use the terms child custody and child support interchangeably, but in New Jersey, they are not the same thing. Child custody refers to the right of a parent or guardian to raise and care for a child. Child support, on the other hand, is a legal arrangement that ensures that the parent who doesn't have primary custody still contributes financially to the child's upbringing.
When deciding custody, the issue of child support is important and will most likely be discussed. They aren't exactly the same thing, though, so don't confuse one with the other.
Rights of Grandparents
In New Jersey and Burlington County, parental rights take precedence over grandparents' rights to custody. If a grandparent wants custodial rights over a child, they usually have to petition the courts for it. This type of petition is rare, however.
In most cases, grandparents may only petition for visitation rights. Visitation lets a person spend time with a child and be part of their life. When a grandparent petitions for visitation, they must show it's in the child's best interest—they don't automatically receive visitation rights just because they petition for it.
Types of Custody Orders in NJ
When the courts make a decision about custody concerning a child, they issue a custody order. The three types of custody orders in New Jersey are:
- Emergency custody order: An emergency custody order lasts for a few days. The court issues it when it suspects that a child is being abused or neglected or that a parent might flee the state with the child.
- Temporary custody order: A temporary custody order lasts while the custody decision process is ongoing; it ends after the hearing for the final custody order. In the case of a temporary custody order, it's common for one parent to get sole physical custody while the other has visitation rights.
- Final custody order: A final order lasts until the child turns 18 or until the parents find an alternative custody arrangement. Although the order is "final," it can still be amended later.
The Child Custody Process in Burlington County NJ
In New Jersey, family courts are committed to keeping minor children in contact with both of their parents as much as possible. Burlington County's Family Court has jurisdiction over child support, custody, parenting time, termination of parental rights, and other matters relating to children and families.
When dealing with child custody and parenting time, the court always aims to do what is in the best interest of the child. You can expect the process to go through five steps.
- Filing for CustodyYou can file for custody of your child at any time. You'll have to do this with the Family Division, which is located at the Burlington County Court Facility. If the custody request is an emergency—if the child is in immediate danger of physical harm, for instance—then you can request an emergency order, and a judge can hear your request on the same day. You can also request custody as part of your divorce proceedings.
- Creating a Parenting PlanOnce the custody order is filed, both parents must work together to create a parenting plan. A parenting plan provides both parties with a written summary of their responsibilities regarding the child. The Family Court will often have the parties create this plan with assistance from a mediator. A complete parenting plan should address the majority of scheduling issues, including visitation times, arrangements for vacations and holidays, responsibilities for transportation, etc.
- Mediation The court may find that issues relating to custody or parenting time should be discussed and negotiated with assistance from a mediator. The mediation process will typically last no more than two months. When the parties are unable to reach a mutually acceptable solution, the Family Court may investigate the circumstances further to make an informed decision. The court can also conduct a custody evaluation to determine what the child's best interests would be.
- Hearing If mediation doesn't lead to an agreement, you and the other parent will go to a hearing. You both must present evidence supporting your case. A judge will listen to both of you and decide how to award custody based on your evidence.
- Appeals After the judge gives a custody order, you or the other parent may appeal it if you disagree. You'll have to file a special motion with the Family Court. An attorney, such as the Lento Law Firm Team, can help you with the appeal. They can also stand by your side throughout the entire custody process.
Considerations in Awarding Child Custody
The courts will make custody-related decisions based on what they believe to be in the best interests of the child. Some of the factors that are taken into account include:
- Any existing relationship between the child and the parents or guardians
- Children older than 12 years old may have their preferences considered
- The ability of the parties to provide a safe and stable family home environment
- How fit the parties are for custodial responsibility
- The ability to provide supervision (childcare) that may be impeded by their employment
- Any history of domestic violence, mental health concerns, or problems with drugs and/or alcohol
The courts cannot give preferential treatment to one parent over the other during the custody process. Generally, however, there's a tendency to favor "50/50" arrangements when possible. New Jersey law operates on the belief that children should get to spend as close to an equal amount of time as possible with each parent. That way, they can have a strong and loving relationship with both of them.
The 50/50 option isn't the best arrangement for each family, though. The courts will thoroughly review each case and ultimately decide what's in the best interest of the child.
Can You Modify a Custody Order in Burlington County?
You can modify an existing custody order in New Jersey if the circumstances change. The previous agreement may no longer be in the child's best interest. An example might be the parent with primary custody moving to another state. To get the order changed, you'll have to apply to modify the custody order.
If you apply, it's not guaranteed that the order will be modified. You'll have to show that the modification is necessary and prove why before the judge approves it.
Can Children Decide Which Parent to Stay With?
Children who are under 18 can't have a definitive say in who they live with because they are still considered a minor. The courts will take the child's opinion into account during the decision process, however, if the child is old enough to voice an opinion.
The court usually gives more weight to a child's opinion if they're older, usually 13 and up. They do consider a younger child's opinion but may place more importance on other factors that are more closely related to the child's care and safety.
What Happens If a Parent Violates the Custody Order?
Violating or interfering with a custody order is usually a third-degree offense in New Jersey, and you could be sent to jail. By interfering with the custody order, one parent has prevented the other from having their normal custody time. In extreme cases, it can be considered the intention to "evade the jurisdiction of the New Jersey courts."
Examples of violating a custody order are:
- Taking the child out of state without the other parent's permission
- Failing to return the child to the other parent
- Detaining or concealing the child
- Neglecting the child or allowing them to partake in dangerous behaviors
If the child leaves the country or their whereabouts are unknown for more than 24 hours, a parent could be charged with a second-degree offense.
If you fail to follow your custody order by accident—forgetting which day to drop your kid off, for example—a judge will probably not consider it interference. Typically, parents can work out these kinds of honest mistakes amongst themselves.
Supervised Visitation in Burlington County
Having supervised visitation allows for parents and children to continue interaction in noncustodial arrangements. One local program holds supervised visitations each week in community office settings. The goal is to maintain communication between parents and children and potentially create a physical custody arrangement at some point.
Relocation of Custodial Parent
Those with physical custody of a child are likely to need court approval to move a considerable distance away from another parent. Depending on the custody arrangement, such a move may require a formal custody modification. The court will consider whether "a substantial change in circumstances" had occurred since the original custody order was implemented.
The court will also potentially question if the proposed relocation is an action of "good faith." The relocation may not be intended to impede the other parent's visitation rights. The best interests of the child are (as always) a primary consideration.
Child Custody Lawyer in New Jersey
Legal actions that relate to your family may create doubt and emotional distress. In child custody cases, it is important to have a lawyer who is familiar with this area of practice and can guide you in the right direction. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his team at the Lento Law Firm can carefully evaluate your case, explain your options, and help you obtain a custody order that's best suited for your family. For a case consultation, contact the Lento Law Firm today at (888) 535-3686.