The overriding public policies under New Jersey law with respect to child custody are that “frequent and continuing contact with both parents” is in children’s best interests, and that “the rights of both parents shall be equal.” The Court can award joint custody, sole custody or any other arrangement in the children’s best interests, and the parents can make their own agreements with these policies in mind.
What is joint custody?
Joint custody has two components: joint legal custody, meaning both parents have a say in the important decisions in their children’s lives, and joint physical custody, meaning that the children spend equal time with each parent. Joint legal custody is quite common. Joint physical custody is becoming more common, but is still far from the norm. When parents agree to joint legal custody, joint physical custody does not necessarily follow. In either case, they must work out a parenting time schedule, which can range from a few sentences in an agreement to a separate multi-paged Court Order specifying exactly who sees the children when. In one of our cases, because of the animosity between the parents, it was down to the quarter-hour for transfer from one parent to the other. Resolution of parenting time issues is one of the most fact-specific of any area of the law. There is no “one size fits all” solution. Every family is different, and working through how the members will interact when they are no longer an intact family requires sensitivity and sometimes assistance from qualified experts.
What is involved in a custody fight in New Jersey Family Court?
It has long been our belief, based on years of practice, that a Court custody fight is one of the most emotionally wrenching experiences one can have – not to mention one of the most hideously expensive financial experiences as well. It can be devastating to the children, since they and their parents must be evaluated by forensic mental health professionals who render reports with recommendations. The parties must testify in Court under oath, and the children may be interviewed by the Judge in chambers, or even called to testify if they are old enough. If necessary, the custody evaluator(s) will testify as well, adding to the expense.
What are the alternatives to a Court custody fight?
These issues can be and often are handled well in mediation, and in fact, mandatory custody and parenting time mediation is built into the New Jersey Family Court system for most cases where those issues are not resolved by a certain stage of the proceedings. It is conducted by court staff and volunteer attorneys, so there is no charge. The collaborative process also is uniquely suited to resolution of these issues, as a Child Specialist (a mental health professional) can be part of the team. This person is not on the team to be a therapist, but to be a voice for the children, independent of both parents.
Having noted all of this, we are experienced in this area of litigation, and take on Court cases where custody and parenting time are highly disputed.