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Filing an Emergency Custody Order: What You Need to Know

By Sarah Jacobs, Esq.

Whether it’s the initial filing, negotiating terms of parenting time, or keeping an agreement updated and functional for the whole family—dealing with child custody issues can be stressful even when everything is going smoothly. 

But what about when it doesn’t go smoothly? Hiccups in the process, misunderstandings between parties, and frustrations with your co-parent are all common—even expected—parts of the process. An experienced child custody attorney can help you proactively address concerns before they escalate into more significant problems. 

In serious situations, though, where there is an immediate concern for your child’s safety and wellbeing, you may find yourself considering whether an emergency custody order is a step you need to take. Here’s what you need to know. 

What is an emergency custody order and what does it accomplish?

It’s understandable that if you’re concerned for your child’s safety, you want to take immediate action to protect them—including requesting a change in your custody agreement. But let’s talk about the purpose of emergency custody orders, which is critical to your decision about pursuing one. 

Emergency modifications are temporary orders issued to change a portion of your custody and parenting time arrangement that must occur quickly to protect against immediate and irreparable harm.  

By filing an emergency custody application, a parent requests that the court immediately intervene to remove a child from harm or put injunctions in place to protect against harm. Several outcomes can occur if the request is granted, from suspending parenting time to temporarily changing custody. It may also include additional relief like ordering mental health or substance abuse evaluations. 

While a standard complaint seeking custody or a modification of custody/parenting time can take months to resolve, this application, called an Order to Show Cause, allows your case to be immediately heard by a judge, generally within just a few hours, or in some cases, a day or two of submission. 

The emergency custody process varies from county to county in New Jersey, but in every case, it’s critical that parties on either end of an emergency custody petition work with an experienced child custody lawyer to resolve the situation. 

There are several reasons to file an emergency custody order

Protecting your children is your priority, but when it comes to emergency custody orders, they are typically reserved for serious and immediate threats to your child’s safety or wellbeing. 

Some circumstances can include, but certainly are not limited to:

  • A parent has been arrested and/or accused of a crime
  • A parent has taken a child to another state or country without the permission of the other parent or the courts (known as parental kidnapping or custodial interference)
  • A child has been physically or mentally abused by the parent or someone else in the household
  • A child has been exposed to substance abuse in the home by the parent or someone else in the household
  • The liveability of the home has become untenable through termination of utilities, flood damage, eviction, etc.
  • Both parents may have suddenly passed away or are otherwise incapacitated and therefore unable to adequately care for the child

As stated above, for an emergency custody order petition to be granted, you need to make a threshold showing that there would be immediate and irreparable harm to the child if the order is not granted. 

Remember that in New Jersey, the entire child custody process is based on the idea that a child should have a relationship with both parents as long as both parents are fit and keep the children’s best interests at the forefront. 

That means demonstrating the need for an emergency custody order can be difficult. Working closely with an experienced child custody attorney can give you the support you need to make these difficult decisions. 

What to do if you suspect you need to file an emergency custody order

Once it’s time to file an emergency custody order, you can move quickly to file the motion. The first step in this process is filing an Order to Show Cause at the courthouse—with the help of an attorney, if possible. To do this, you’ll need to:

  • Explain why you’re pursuing an emergency modification
  • Prove that the harm is imminent and, in most cases, irreparable 

If the court finds you met the requirements, you’ll likely be able to appear in front of a judge on the same day that the order was filed, and the judge will hear your case quickly. 

It’s also important to note that the parent asking for the emergency hearing is usually required to provide notice about the hearing to the other parent. In some cases, notice may not be appropriate and can be avoided. Child custody attorneys can best guide you about when and how notice is made.

Hearings can be stressful and emotionally charged. At Jacobs Berger, we make sure our clients are prepared and supported throughout the process. 

What to expect during an emergency custody order hearing

At the hearing, you must make a threshold showing the child is in danger of immediate and irreparable harm. If the judge agrees, they’ll issue a temporary emergency order based on your requests for relief. You, your attorney, and any other adult with custodial rights will need to return to the courthouse in approximately ten days for a more extensive hearing, which can result in a permanent child custody modification.

If the judge disagrees that the situation is an emergency, you’ll generally be scheduled for a standard hearing no less than a month from your original application. Sometimes a court can dismiss the application without relisting it for a hearing if the requirements of the law for meeting an emergency custody application are not met.

What happens if an emergency custody order is granted?

If the judge enters an emergency custody order, you’ll have a hearing within the following weeks for both parents to be heard and present their evidence to enforce or dispute the custody order. The judge will then decide to either uphold, modify, or overturn the emergency order. 

At the time that you make your initial application, if the court finds you’ve proven immediate and irreparable harm will happen if the court doesn’t step in, the judge will include in the emergency custody order it enters the following :

  • A date that the parent for who the order was filed against can move to dissolve any injunctions entered pending the final return date, and 
  • A date for a full hearing 

At the hearing, the court will decide whether the interim arrangement will stand or be modified somewhat, whether it will become permanent, or whether a new arrangement needs to be constructed. 

At the trial, the parent who filed the initial emergency custody order will present the issues and evidence for the emergency order to become permanent.  The opposing party, or the co-parent, will also have the opportunity to defend themselves against this arrangement becoming permanent. 

The judge will hear both sides and decide how the family should proceed. The judge will ultimately decide based on what they believe to be in the child’s best interests, whether the immediate and irreparable harm has been avoided, and if it can continue to be avoided moving forward.

Working with a family lawyer when filing an emergency custody order can help the process move more quickly and smoothly. At Jacobs Berger, we’ll keep you informed along each step, and we can help keep you prepared and supported throughout the process.

Partner with an experienced New Jersey child custody attorney

At Jacobs Berger, LLC, our child custody attorneys have extensive experience navigating emergency child custody orders throughout New Jersey.

We seek to protect the stability of your relationship with your child and guide you through the process while minimizing stress for all parties.

If you’re considering an emergency custody order for your child’s safety, contact us today or schedule a 15-minute coordination call. If you believe there is a true, immediate emergency, it may be wise to contact local law enforcement.

Contact Our Morristown Attorneys Today

At Jacobs Berger, our attorneys are experienced in protecting our clients across Madison, Randolph, Tewksbury, Morristown, and the greater Morris County area in all family law-related issues.

To schedule a strategic planning session with one of our experienced team members regarding your particular case, please contact us online or through our Morristown, NJ office at (973) 354-4506.