When a couple decides to no longer be together, separate, end their relationship, or file for divorce, they often face a long, emotional road of breaking off their lives together. When the couple shares children, it can often make this process more frustrating and emotional, having to decide the many New Jersey child custody factors that come their way. When a couple comes to court to have custody decided, the New Jersey family law court system is tasked with upholding the “best interests of the child” standard, making all of its decisions and final judgements based on what is best for the child or children involved in the case.
Best Interests of the Child Standard in New Jersey
When the court system makes decisions on custody in terms of separation or divorce, it must always consider the best interests of the child first and foremost. This means that the child’s emotional and physical welfare is the most important consideration the judge makes when evaluating a New Jersey child custody arrangement. Every custody decision is evaluated on a case by case basis, but the judge must begin his or her assessment by assuming that “frequent and continuing contact with both parents” benefits the child as well as that both parents “share the rights and responsibilities of child rearing” (N.J.S.A. 9:2-4.).
Determining Factors for Child Custody
While judges have free reign to make the decisions they feel are best for the child, they are also guided by factors set for by New Jersey state law. The factors that the state outlines fall into one of the following major categories:
1) Child’s Physical Health and Safety
The child’s physical safety is always considered a top concern for courts that are hearing child custody cases. This also includes ensuring that neither parent poses any risk of physical violence toward the child or the other parent. The court also investigates whether either parent has a history of domestic violence or sexual abuse or assault. Should the judge find that one of the parent’s actions does pose a risk to the child, that parent’s custody is either moved to a supervised state or suspended all together. If these factors are not present, the court likely allows the child to spend equal time with both parents.
2) Child’s Emotional Needs
The stability in each parent’s home is also a factor that the judge evaluates when hearing a New Jersey child custody case. Additionally, the court looks at the stability and interactions between both parents and the child and the extent to which each parent has been involved in the child’s upbringing to this point. Sibling relationships are also considered in terms of the child’s emotional needs, and the court generally tries to keep all siblings together. Should the judge believe that the children involved are old enough and mature enough, they may be allowed to state a preference for which parent they wish to primarily reside with.
3) Communication Skills and Co-Parenting
Each parent’s ability to communicate with one another and cooperate in terms of the child custody arrangement is also evaluated by the judge. One of the key factors in co-parenting is whether both parents can communicate and interact in a civilized and peaceful manner. Willingness to be actively involved in the child’s life is also an important factor for the court to consider when evaluating the parents, but it is also important for the parents to understand that they cannot interfere with the child when he or she is spending time with the other parent.
Practical Considerations Made by the Judge
The judge is also tasked with making some “practical considerations” in his or her final decision. Some of these considerations include the distance between where both parents are planning to reside, the location of the school the child is attending or will attend, the parents’ employment responsibilities, and the ages and number of additional children that reside in each home. There is no set formula for how these considerations are measured, and there is no way to predict how much weight will be placed on these practical considerations by the judge hearing the case.
How Judges Choose New Jersey Child Custody Arrangements
Parents do have the right to create their own New Jersey child custody agreement that outlines how they will share parenting time and how long the child will reside with them in a given time period–as long as this arrangement does not go against the best interests of the child. This presents the parents with an opportunity to work together and come up with an arrangement a schedule that works for everyone involved. Should the parents be unable to agree on a plan, the court is tasked with deciding the custody arrangement for them. The court may require parents who cannot create their own parenting plan to attend mediation in an attempt to create a plan.
Child Custody Options in New Jersey
Child Custody in New Jersey is defined using the terms “legal custody” and “physical custody.” Legal custody is the parent’s responsibility and right to make positive decisions about the child’s upbringing, including medical care, educational needs, community involvement and possibly religion. Physical custody refers to the time that the child spends with either parent and with whom the child is residing. Aside from favoring shared responsibility, the state of New Jersey has no preference for a particular custody arrangement.
While joint custody, both legal and physical, is a common ruling, judges often find that the child having a primary “home base” and a regular schedule is the most beneficial. Parents who are able to effectively communicate and are flexible with each others schedules are often the most successful when it comes to creating a joint custody arrangement that allows for a 50/50 split of time with the child. Parents are also encouraged to keep in mind that as the child ages, his or her needs will change and adjustments to the custody agreement may need to be made.
Child Custody and Relocation in New Jersey
When the New Jersey child custody arrangement is laid out–with one parent having primary physical custody and the other parent having visitation–the process of relocation can often be a difficult one. This is most often an issue when the primary custodian of the child wants to move and take the child a farther distance away from the other parent. In these cases, especially when the other parent is protesting the move, the relocating parent needs to prove to the court that the move is beneficial for the child and upholds the child’s best interests.