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Reality versus perception in child custody cases

By Sarah Jacobs, Esq.

Heading into a legal battle about child custody can be a very frightening experience for parents across New Jersey. In many cases, people think they know what will happen and assume that there is little, if anything, that can be done to change an assumed outcome.

For example, many parents may assume that the courts will favor one parent, generally a mother, over the other. They believe that fathers are at a disadvantage because mothers are often considered the caretaker while fathers are considered providers.

However, in recent years, significant shifts in family structures and dynamics have challenged these assumptions. Family law has been catching up to these changes and now the belief that mothers will automatically get sole custody and fathers will have limited ‘visitation’ may no longer be reflected in the courtroom. Moreover, more family structures involve same-sex parents, caregivers other than parents, and/or multiple parents where these perceived gender roles do not apply.

Studies have shown that many courts are now favoring shared residential custodial arrangements. In one study, the number of cases resulting in an equal shared custody arrangement doubled to nearly 31 percent of divorce cases in 10 years. Another survey indicated that there have been significant increases in the number of mothers who are required to pay child support, a concept which would have been less heard of in decades past.

These and other studies illustrate the changes that are happening in divorce cases. With parental roles no longer fitting neatly into two categories – “breadwinner and caretaker” – judges are realizing that there needs to be a more balanced and modern approach to determining custody.

While there is still the presumption in some circles that parents may be treated unfairly in child custody cases based upon gender, the reality may paint a different picture. This discrepancy is important because it means that many people do not have a reasonable expectation as to what to anticipate in child custody litigation. They also may not understand what rights they have as a parent, regardless of their gender or care taking role.

This is why it can be so crucial for parents to work with an attorney during any disagreement or litigation regarding child custody issues. Presuming that a case will go a certain way can be dangerous, as it could result in parents not pursuing legal guidance, which could have a devastating impact on the outcome. There is a big difference between knowing the law and having assumptions about the law. With legal support, parents can be sure that their rights are not violated and any custody determinations are fair and appropriate.

Source: Slate, “Dad’s Day in Court,” Hanna Rosin, May 13, 2014

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