In New Jersey, child custody has two components: legal custody and physical custody.  Most often, parties enter into custodial agreements whereby they agree to joint legal custody with one parent named as the primary residential or custodial parent and the other named as alternate residential or non-custodial parent.

Legal custody embodies a parent’s right and responsibility to make decisions in the child’s best interests.  An award or an agreement of joint legal custody recognizes that both parents have a prominent role in decisions affecting the child.  These “major” decisions include those that affect the child’s health, education, safety and general welfare.  On the other hand, sole legal custody effectively deprives the other parent of significant input in major decisions affecting the child and is often disfavored by courts.

Most custody cases before the New Jersey courts involve physical custody in which the primary issue is the children’s primary residence and the parenting allotted to the other parent.  Courts recognize that it is in a child’s best interest to ensure frequent and continuing contact with both parents.  There is no longer a presumption that custody goes to the mother with the father having “visitation” every other weekend.  When faced with the difficult decision of awarding custody, the courts consider several factors that impact the child’s best interests.  Among them are the parents’ ability to agree and communicate, the parents’ willingness to accept custody, a history of unwillingness to allow parenting time, the interaction and relationship of the child with parents and siblings, a history of domestic violence, 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 reach an intelligent opinion, the needs of the child, the stability of the home environment offered by each parent, 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 after separation, each parent’s employment responsibilities, and the age and number of children.

Most custody cases are eventually settled by agreement and the implementation of a schedule that includes holidays and other “special” days.  Many counties refer custody cases to mediation.  Custody and parenting time mediation is a free service offered by the court to assist litigants to agree to a parenting time schedule with the help of a trained mediator.  If the parties are unable to reach an agreement through mediation, litigation will follow.

Life goes on.  Children get older.  Parents change jobs.  Families relocate.  Orders that affect children, and indeed, the award of custody itself, are subject to modification when circumstances change.  The lawyers at Paras, Apy & Reiss, P.C. are experienced in crafting, implementing and modifying custody orders that fit each family’s unique needs.

The information in this article is not intended as legal advice.  For legal advice, you should consult your attorney.