When ruling on custody issues, a New Jersey court will always focus on the best interests of the child.
Some of the factors a court will consider in making its determination of the child’s best interests are:
- The physical, emotional, and moral environment in each parent’s home;
- The child’s safety;
- The mental and physical health of each parent;
- Each parent’s ability to care for the child;
- The child’s age;
- The child’s stated preferences about which parent to live with;and
- Each parent’s behavior (including any record of child abuse).
It is New Jersey public policy that children should have frequent and continuing contact with both of their parents after the parents have separated or divorced.It’s considered a matter of public interest for parents to share the rights and responsibilities of raising their children.
Custody has two components:legal and physical.
- Legal custody refers to the right to make important life decisions for the child.
- Physical custody refers to where and with whom the child lives.
A parent has sole physical custody when the child lives with that parent most of the time.The other parent will normally have “parenting time” (also called “visitation”) with the child.
Parents have joint physical custody when a child divides his or her time between the parents’ households.This division doesn’t need to be exactly equal in time (50/50) to be considered joint physical custody, this is typically referred to as “shared custody”.
Parents can agree on whatever joint physical custody arrangement works best for them and their children.For example, children may spend weeknights at one parent’s house and weekends at the others.They may alternate weeks between households.They may spend the school year with one parent and vacations with the other.They may even spend an entire year with one parent and then the other.
Parents have joint legal custody when each parent has the right to participate in making decisions about the child.These decisions might include matters such as education, religion, and after-school activities such as sports.Even where one parent has sole physical custody, joint legal custody is very common in New Jersey.
If a parent has sole legal custody, that parent can make major decisions about the child’s life without consulting the other parent or getting the other parent’s permission.For example, a parent with sole legal custody could decide on his or her own where the child will go to school, what religion the child will be raised in, and whether the child will play sports, have music lessons, or go to sleep-away camp.
Joint legal custody is now the most common custody arrangement; sole legal custody is less typical.Courts will most often order it if one parent is deemed unfit to make decisions for a child.A parent can be considered “unfit” because of a past history of abuse or neglect of the child, drug or alcohol abuse, or major mental health issues.
As with orders for alimony and child support, custody orders are subject to modification if there is a significant change in circumstances.For example, a parent may seek a change in custody if:
- A parent changes jobs and has more or less time to spend with a child;
- A child develops behavior problems that might better be addressed by the other parent;or
- A parent moves to an area with a better (or worse) school.
- Any other reason that impacts the best interests of a child.
If you have questions about child custody rights and obligations in New Jersey, please contact our office to arrange an appointment with an experienced Bergen County family law attorney at Chase & Chase.