The child custody laws in New Jersey focus on the child's best interests instead of what the parents might want. In most cases, courts will issue orders for the children to have frequent and ongoing contact with both parents and for the parents to share the responsibilities and rights involved with raising their children. If you are trying to figure out the child custody arrangements that might work best for your family, a child custody and divorce lawyer in New Jersey at the law firm of the Ziegler Law Group can explain the various options and advocate for your legal rights and interests.
Child Custody in New Jersey
Two primary types of child custody exist in New Jersey, including legal and physical custody. Legal custody involves which parent will have the legal authority to make important decisions about their children's education, religion, and medical care. Physical custody refers to where a child will live. Each of these basic types of child custody includes different possible arrangements, including sole or joint legal and physical custody.
Joint Legal Custody
Parents who are granted joint legal custody must consult with each other before making major decisions on behalf of their child. This is the most common approach to legal custody in New Jersey. Courts can award joint legal custody to both parents for all major decisions involving their children's medical care, education, and religion or award joint legal custody to both parents for one or two of these areas while awarding sole legal custody for the remaining ones. For example, if two parents can work together for their child's education and medical care but can't agree about their religious upbringing, the court might award joint custody to both parents for decisions about education and medical care while awarding one parent sole legal custody to make decisions about their child's religion.
Sole Legal Custody
The court can also order that one parent has sole legal custody to make important decisions on behalf of their child. In this situation, the parent who is granted sole legal custody will not have to consult with the other parent before making major decisions that affect the child. This type of custody is typically only ordered when a court finds that one parent is unfit or unavailable. Unfitness means a parent's conduct substantially and negatively affects the child.
Joint Physical Custody
Joint residential or physical custody of a child means that the child will live with both parents and alternate between their homes. There are many different forms that a shared parenting schedule can take. In most cases, one parent will have the child more than half of the time or have the child during the school week when school is in session. The number of overnights each parent has with the child will be important for calculating child support, and the child's primary residence during the school year will also affect where they can attend school.
Sole Physical Custody
When one parent has sole physical custody of a child, the child will live with that parent most of the time and will spend fewer than two overnights per week with the other parent. Sole custody might also involve the child living with one parent and only having supervised visits with the noncustodial parent when the noncustodial parent has a history of abuse, addiction, or other issues that could place the child at risk while in that parent's care.
Child Custody and Parenting Time Agreements
Parents can negotiate agreements for how child custody and parenting time should be handled. If the parents can negotiate a full child custody and parenting time agreement, they can submit it to the court. As long as the court finds that the agreement is in the child's best interests, the judge will adopt it as the court's orders.
If the parents can't reach an agreement, each parent will submit a proposed custody and parenting time plan to the court. They can attend mediation to try to reach an agreement on unresolved issues. If they do, the agreement reached during mediation can be submitted to the court. The court will decide any unresolved issues remaining after mediation at a child custody trial.
In most cases, parents tend to be happier with child custody and parenting time when they reach agreements instead of leaving the decisions up to a judge.
Mediation, Investigation, and Evaluation
Mediation in child custody cases is mandatory when the parents have a significant custody dispute. However, mediation will not be ordered in cases involving a domestic violence restraining order.
When mediation is unsuccessful, the Family Division might be ordered to investigate. An investigator will evaluate the character and fitness of each parent, their economic circumstances, the parents' criminal records, and the homes in which the children will live. The court might also order a qualified mental health professional to evaluate each parent's fitness and character and make recommendations to the court. This process might include a psychological evaluation, interviews with both parents, and a review of various records. Once the professional has evaluated the parents, they will submit a report with their recommendations to the court. Finally, a guardian ad litem might be appointed to represent the child's interests. The GAL will interview the child, parents, and others who have relevant information and submit a report to the court.
Best Interests of the Child Standard
If the case can't be resolved outside of court, the parents will have to go to a custody trial at which they will present evidence and testimony. Once both sides have rested, the court will issue custody orders based on what is in the child's best interests. The best interests of the child standard involves making a custody decision based on the following important factors:
- The child's relationship with each parent
- Each parent's ability to cooperate, communicate, and agree about important matters concerning the child
- Each parent's willingness to accept the court's custody orders along with any history of a parent's unwillingness to allow the child to visit the other parent unless substantiated child abuse has occurred
- The quality and extent of the time each parent has enjoyed with the child before and following the couple's separation
- The child's relationship with any siblings and others in the home
- Each child's age and the number of children
- The child's needs and safety
- For older children, their preferences
- How stable each parent's home environment is
- Distance between the parents' homes
- The fitness of each parent
- Each parent's job responsibilities
- Any history of domestic violence/abuse
- Each parent's safety from abuse by the other parent
Consult a Child Custody and Divorce Lawyer in New Jersey
If you are involved in a dispute over the custody of your child with the other parent, you should talk to the attorneys at the Ziegler Law Group. We can review your family's situation and help you understand the child custody arrangements that might best meet your family's needs. Call us today at (973) 878-4373 to request a consultation.
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