In New Jersey, when a married couple files for divorce, typically every aspect of the family is divided. This means that all matters of support, property division and custody are handled in one filing. Once a divorce is finalized, the terms set in place will remain in place for a designated amount of time. However, as life moves on, both spouses may find themselves at different stages in life. What worked at the time of the divorce may not continue to work for the time after. One spouse may wish to re-locate, or change the terms of what was resolved at divorce. If the spouses have children, things may become even further complicated, as New Jersey has special rules regarding what can and cannot be done after a divorce. There are several situations that can arise that cause parents to seek modifications or new custody agreements after a divorce has already been finalized.
Reasons For Post-Divorce Custody Changes
When couples seek to change a custody agreement after a divorce, it normally stems from one of several reasons:
- Relocation: It is common for families who have divorced to find other places to live. However, a custody agreement where a child has visitation with the parents can sometimes make these things complicated. Legally, both parents are obligated to provide one another with access to the child. Relocation can complicate this, and it may potentially land one of the parents in contempt of court. For this reason, if a parent plans on relocating, especially far away, it is absolutely necessary to consult the court prior to any relocation.
- Change in Income: When one parent experiences a change in their income level, for better or for worse, it directly affects the standard of living for their child. While income is typically used to determine child and spousal support, rather than the actual custody, changes in a person's income can have far-reaching and serious consequences in their life, and their child's life. While income is not a deciding factor in custody, a change in income may prompt one parent to request a modification of a standing custody order.
- Change in Availability: Sometimes, a parent may have a shift in their ability to care for their child. Life is constantly moving forward, and although the custody terms from the divorce may have worked for a short while, they may not continue to work as the family continues to grow. Jobs change, lifestyles change, and this makes a person's availability change.
- Lifestyle change: If there is a significant change to a parent's lifestyle, it may also prompt a modification of the standing agreement. Lifestyle changes include things like one parent re-marrying, or making themselves scarce for the child due to outside situations. These situations do not always affect a parent's ability to care for a child, and they may not always present cause to modify a standing agreement, but if one parent feels as though the custody agreement is being affected, they may petition for a modification. At times, it may be necessary to prove it in court.
- Unfitness: Unfitness to be a parent to a child is grounds for modification of a standing custody agreement, and possibly a termination of parental rights altogether. "Unfitness" can come into play when a parent has expressed serious inability to properly care for a child, such as criminal charges or signs of addiction.
These are just a few reasons why a custody modification can be ordered. Every situation is different, and oftentimes, families who have undergone divorce are in a state of mind where tension is high, and emotions run amok. It is important to consider all options in a custody modification calmly and objectively.
How To Obtain A Custody Agreement Modification
When it is time for parents to seek modifications to standing custody orders, there is a certain process that must be followed. Typically, the court must be petitioned for a modification to take place. Most custody agreements are on a modification schedule, meaning that they only last for a certain period of time, then both parties will attend court to change the agreement if necessary. However, life does not always happen on the court's schedule, so at times, parents will need to petition the court for a change to the standing agreement when situations arise.
If a parent wishes to relocate, they must petition the court for a change in the standing agreements. This should be done with the assistance of an attorney. Basically, either the other party must consent to the move or your attorney must file a motion for a modification. Modifying for a relocation will typically get approved, provided that it does not deeply disturb the standing custody agreement. The court may end up requesting that both parents seek to resolve the situation through mediation, to find an agreement that works for both parents. At times, the court will allow the move and change in custody if it does not adversely affect the child in any way. If the opposing parent does not consent to this they must prove that the move either does not benefit the child or that it is best for the child to remain in New Jersey or the county where custody was ordered.
For Other Purposes
Modification for purposes besides a relocation can be particularly difficult. The reason for that is because a relocation does not need to be proven, such as would be the case, for example, when parents accuse one another of domestic or child abuse, substance abuse, and the like. Modifications for other reasons besides one parent relocating often involve court hearings, and one parent having to prove their claims. Engaging in custody battles like this often requires the skillful representation of an attorney, as these matters are most often handled in the courtroom.
If you or a loved one is seeking custody modification in New Jersey, contact attorney Joseph D. Lento today.