Your marriage has hit the bricks, and of course, your soon-to-be ex has left the Brick City for greener pastures. Even while you were together, you always took care of the kids. You're not sure what your ex has in mind for the near future, but you want to ensure the kids will stay with you. Read on for a general overview of New Jersey child custody law.
Types of Custody Arrangements
When talking about the types of child custody, it is important to differentiate between legal and physical custody. "Legal custody" refers to the right to make major decisions regarding a child's life and upbringing, such as medical care choices, education, and religious activities. "Physical custody" refers to where the child lives, as well as the smaller day-to-day decision-making regarding the child's care (e.g. the scheduling and logistics of extracurricular activities).
Depending on the best interests of the child, New Jersey courts may award sole or joint custody. In a sole custody arrangement, the court generally awards one parent (the custodial parent) both legal and physical custody. This means that not only does the child live with the custodial parent, but that parent may make major and minor decisions regarding the child's care without consulting the other parent.
In a joint custody situation, parents may share legal custody, physical custody, or both. If the court awards joint legal custody and sole residential custody, the parent with whom the child spends most nights is designated the "Parent of Primary Residence" (PPR) -- while the other parent is designated the "Parent of Alternate Residence" (PAR). In this situation, both parents participate in major parenting decisions, while the PPR handles decisions relating to the child's day-to-day life.
An arrangement involving both joint legal and joint physical custody is referred to as "shared custody." In this arrangement, the child spends roughly equal time with each parent (e.g. alternating weeks), and both parents participate in the major and minor decisions that arise in the child's life. Because shared custody involves a great deal of cooperation between the parents, it usually works best when the parents are able to effectively communicate and agree on fundamental issues without conflict.
Determining Custody Arrangements
In Newark, child custody cases are heard in the Family Court, located on the first nine floors of the Wilentz Justice Complex at 212 Washington Street.
Because parents are encouraged to make custodial arrangements before going to court, parties may be required to participate in a confidential mediation through Essex County Family Mediation Service (973-693-6622) before the parties may appear in court. During mediation, both parents are asked to work together to agree on a plan detailing each parent's time with the child.
In the event that the parties are unable to agree on a parenting plan, the court will make a custody determination according to the "best interests of the child" -- that is, the court's decision centers at all times on ensuring the health, safety, and well-being of the child. Unless there is a showing that one of the parents is "unfit," New Jersey courts usually presume that the child is best served by having frequent contact with both parents and also by having both parents participate in parenting decisions. From there, the courts examine several factors and situational circumstances in making its final determination, including:
The relationship the child has with each of the parents;
The relationship between siblings and the desirability of keeping siblings together (courts generally prefer not to split children up between parents);
The relationship between the parents (i.e. willingness to cooperate and agree on parenting issues);
The stability of each parent's home;
The amount of time the child spent with each parent prior to separation or divorce;
The distance between the parents' homes;
Any history of domestic violence; and
The wishes of the child (if he or she is determined to be of an appropriate age and maturity).
Again, remember that the court's primary consideration in determining child custody will always be what is in the best interests of the child.
Contact a qualified attorney.