The Process for Determining Custody
A child custody dispute can be emotionally draining to the parties and their children, even with a child custody lawyer in NJ. The process can be prolonged and expensive and often requires reports and testimony from mental health experts, the parties and other witnesses. The court must determine what custodial arrangement and decision making is in the best interest of a child or children. The custody factors which a court should consider and be presented to the trial judge have been previously listed. Prior to a final hearing a party can apply to the court for more or less parenting time.
Often the court directs the parties to court-ordered mediation or private mediation. Prior to trial the court will allow discovery to include the exchange of written questions (interrogatories, document production, and testimony of parties and witnesses prior to the trial (depositions). Either party may appeal a final decision of a court. If a child custody dispute cannot be amicably resolved, the matter will be decided by a judge or, if the parties agree, an arbitrator, normally an experienced child custody lawyer in NJ or retired judge who serves in the capacity of a judge and is paid by the parties.
How Courts Determine Child Custody
The paramount consideration in child custody cases is to determine which party will foster the best interests of the child. This standard has been described as one that protects the “safety, happiness, physical, mental and moral welfare of the child.” Fantony v. Fantony, 21 N.J. 525, 536 (1956). Pursuant to New Jersey Statute, N.J.S.A. 9:2-4, the court will consider the following factors when making a custody award:
- The parents’ ability to agree, communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the child.
- The parents’ willingness to accept custody and any history of unwillingness to allow parenting time not based on substantiated abuse.
- The interaction and relationship of the child with its parents and siblings.
- The history of domestic violence, if any.
- The safety of the child and the safety of either parent from physical abuse by the other parent.
- The preference of the child when of sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent decision.
- The needs of the child.
- The stability of the home environment offered.
- The quality and continuity of the child’s education.
- The fitness of the parents.
- The geographical proximity of the parents’ homes.
- The extent and quality of the time spent with the child prior to or subsequent to the separation.
- The parents’ employment responsibilities.
- The age and number of the children.
Typical Protocol of Forensic Experts
The forensic custody expert will typically meet separately with each parent, each child and both parents together and the children together with each parent. The expert will also interview collateral sources such as school teachers, family, friends, witnesses to significant episodes and previous treating therapists of a party provided consent is given to waive the doctor/patient privilege.
If consent is not given by a party to waive the privilege, the court will decide whether the privilege shall be nevertheless waived. If a psychologist is doing the evaluation, psychological testing will also be administered to the parties. A typical test is an MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory). The MMPI has several scales that measure different psychological conditions such as depression, hysteria, paranoia, etc.
The psychologist must follow certain professional guidelines and procedures mandated by their profession and known to child custody lawyers in NJ.
Very often each party has retained his or her own mental health expert to render an opinion. However, the court may require its own expert or the parties may agree on a joint expert with the right of either party to retain their own expert. If a joint or court expert renders an adverse report about a litigant, the court may not allow that party to retain his or her own expert if it will delay the trial.
A Typical Parenting Time Schedule
Each parenting time schedule will be tailored to the needs of the parents and child(ren). Typically, the starting point for a parenting plan for a PAR is alternating weekends as well as one or two nights during the week for dinner and alternate holidays. In recent years, it is more common for the PAR to have Sunday overnights on the alternate weekend or one overnight during the week. When determining a parenting plan that is best for you and your child(ren), it is also important to consider the unique needs of each child and how each parent meets those needs. If a child has special needs, or is very young or a parent is irresponsible or incapable of handling a child, a typical arrangement may not be in the best interest of a child.
The party designated as the PPR can take the child as a dependent on Federal and State tax returns except if the parties agree otherwise. A parent may file a Head of Household tax return if he or she has physical custody for more than 50% of the overnights.
Modification of Custody
After child custody is determined by a judge or by agreement between the parties, it may be modified by filing a motion with the court based on changed circumstances to increase or decrease parenting time or change the primary custodian. Examples of a substantial change in circumstances include: a child is being exposed to an unhealthy environment (drugs, alcohol, or abuse); the child is doing poorly in school academically or acting out by violent or destructive behavior; or the child has expressed a desire to live with the other parent.
- Relocating Your Child: If you are the primary custodial parent and want to move with your child to another state or country, you need permission of the child’s non-custodial parent or a court order before you move. Learn More about child custody laws in NJ.