As family law attorneys, some of the most frequent—and often the most pressing—questions we get involve child custody and parenting time. More specifically, we’re often asked how the court weighs what’s in the child’s (or children’s) best interests and makes decisions about decisions, schedules, and other related issues.
In the state of New Jersey, it is generally presumed that a child’s well-being is best served when they can have a relationship with both parents. Moreover, joint legal custody is preferred by the courts whenever possible, but only as long as each parent provides a secure and healthy environment for the child.
But while the court may hold these general presumptions, it will make specific decisions about child custody based on a number of different factors to determine what is in the best interest of the child.
Factors the court considers in child custody matters
No one factor solely determines the outcome of a child custody matter, nor are all factors weighted equally by the court when it examines each case.
Instead, the court takes a holistic look at what is in the best interest of the child, including:
Parents’ ability to communicate and cooperate
How well can you and your co-parent communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the child’s health, education, and general well-being? Are you able to come to mutual agreements on your own?
The mechanics of how you reach decisions also play a part in the court’s analysis. Are they streamlined and effective, or drawn out with the assistance of third parties like mediators, parent coordinators, or other neutral parties?
The number and ages of children involved
When determining child custody orders, the court will consider the number and ages of the children involved in the matter.
When your child is of sufficient age to reasonably form an independent decision, the court will also consider the preference of the child, but this doesn’t mean that the child’s voice determines the outcome.
The stability of the home environment
When it comes to determining the child’s living arrangements—whether residing solely with one parent or with each parent in a time-sharing scenario—the court will consider the stability of each parent’s home environment.
Note that “stability” is comprised of a number of factors:
- Regular routines for child
- Consistent care for child
- Financial stability
- Length of time resided in home
- And more
The court will also assess how the child custody decision or time-sharing arrangement could potentially affect the quality and continuity of the child’s education.
History of domestic violence
If either or both parents have a history of domestic violence, this will be assessed by the court before making a child custody determination. In the eyes of the court, the safety of the child (and of either parent) from physical abuse is always a priority.
It is important to note though, that even if a history of domestic violence exists, or one parent has a restraining order against the other, this does not mean the party who evidenced violence or is the perpetrator under the restraining order is disadvantaged. The court must weigh this in conjunction with all of the other facts and circumstances of the case.
Any special needs of the child or children involved
If your children have special needs, the court will consider the fitness of each parent to meet those needs.
When NJ courts consider a child’s special needs, they consider a variety of factors including:
- Specialized therapy (physical, occupational, or speech therapy, for example)
- Equipment such as a wheelchair or vehicle customization
- Household modifications, such as wheelchair accessibility
- Medications and insurance coverage, along with other anticipated medical expenses
- Dietary needs
- School programs and associated costs
The geographical proximity of the parents
How close are you and the other parent’s homes to each other? This could play a part in determining whether your child should reside solely in one home or split time between two, and how much time will be spent at each residence.
If you are considering relocating out of New Jersey, talk to an experienced family law attorney as this may require a significant change in your custodial arrangement. If you’re looking to move within New Jersey, and that move may significantly impact the current custody and parenting time schedule, it’s best you speak to someone experienced as well, especially if you have a radius clause or restriction on distance in your current order or agreement.
Additional factors considered by the court
Note that the above-mentioned factors are not an exhaustive list of all that is considered by the New Jersey court when determining child custody arrangements. Additional factors include but are not limited to:
- Employment responsibilities, including travel needs, work schedule, and more
- Willingness to accept custody
- Any history of unwillingness to allow parenting time (that is not based on substantiated abuse)
- Relationship/interactions of child with parents and siblings
- Child’s preference (at a sufficient age/capacity to reason)
- Time spent with the child prior to or subsequent to separation
A family law attorney will work with you to understand how and whether these factors may pertain to your unique situation, and what steps to take accordingly.
Work with a New Jersey child custody attorney
Every family—and family legal matter—is unique. If you have questions about how these factors may weigh in your circumstances, a family law attorney can help.
At Jacobs Berger, our attorneys have extensive experience navigating child custody and parenting time agreements in New Jersey while keeping you and your child’s best interests in mind. Contact our team to coordinate your strategy planning session today.