When a marriage ends in divorce, one of the most important decisions to be made is that of child custody. Parents may decide the custody arrangement on their own or with a mediator. If they are unable to come to an agreement, the court may intervene to make a decision that is in the best interests of the child.
Types of Child Custody in New Jersey
Child custody determinations include decisions regarding where the child will live, how much time the child will spend with each parent and which parent will make decisions on behalf of the child.
Physical Custody: The parent with whom the child will live most of the time has physical custody. If one parent is awarded sole custody, the child will live with them and they will provide day-to-day care for the child, while the other parent will have visitation rights. Parents may also come to a joint custody arrangement, under which the child will spend equal time with each parent, living with each parent approximately half of the time. This type of arrangement typically works when both parents are highly cooperative for the child’s benefit.
A less common arrangement is split custody, where each parent takes physical custody of one or more children. Courts will rarely impose this type of arrangement, as it is thought best not to separate siblings.
Legal Custody: Legal custody refers to the right to make decisions on behalf of the child. These decisions include education, religion, health care and other important life decisions. Upon divorce, parents typically share legal custody regardless of which parent has physical custody of the child. In a shared legal custody arrangement, both parents will make decisions relating to the welfare of the child.
If a parent is awarded sole legal custody, the other parent may still be entitled to visitation. It is an arrangement usually reserved for situations in which one parent is not available to make decisions on behalf of the child, not for when parents simply cannot agree. Courts will lean towards requiring parents to cooperate for the sake of the child.
The Best Interests of the Child
In New Jersey, as well as all other U.S. states, courts take into account several factors when determining child custody orders. The most important consideration is that of the best interests of the child. In determining the best interests of the child, courts may consider the:
- Child’s primary caretaker prior to the divorce (who bathed, fed and clothed the child, handled the child’s healthcare and helped the child with school and extracurricular activities)
- Mental and physical fitness of the parents
- Child’s preference (if the child is 12 years of age or older and therefore legally capable of expressing a preference)
- Parents’ employment
- Available support and interaction with extended family and the community
- Evidence of parental drug, alcohol or sex abuse
Physical abuse, verbal abuse or neglect of a child as well as a history of domestic violence against the other spouse before or after the divorce may cause a parent to lose parental rights. Their visitation hours may be reduced, or they may be required to have supervised visitation.