New Jersey courts use the “best interests of the child” standard to make decisions regarding child custody and visitation. This standard is subjective and allows for a great deal of judicial discretion, but several factors are used to guide the decision-making process.
Applying the Standard
Several types of disputes are resolved by determining what is in the child’s best interests. For example:
- Physical custody. Physical custody refers to where the child lives. Primary physical custody means the child lives with one parent. Joint physical custody means the child lives with each parent 50% of the time.
- Legal custody. The right to make decisions regarding the child’s education, healthcare, and other important parenting concerns is known as legal custody. Legal custody is generally shared unless there are factors that affect one parent’s decision-making ability.
- Visitation. This includes the frequency of visitation as well as whether or not supervised visitation is necessary.
- Modifications. When circumstances change, the court has the authority to modify existing custody and visitation agreements.
Factors Used to Determine the Child’s Best Interests
When determining what custody and visitation arrangements are in a child’s best interests, the court will consider the following factors:
- Physical safety. Is there a history of domestic violence or child abuse? Does the home environment pose a risk of injury or harm to the child?
- Emotional needs. What is the child’s relationship with each parent? To what extent has each parent participated in daily caregiving tasks?
- Parental health and fitness. Do the parents suffer from any physical or mental condition that limits their ability to parent effectively? (This would include active addiction as well as a serious untreated mental illness such as schizophrenia.)
- Living environment. Can the parents provide a stable and appropriate living environment?
- Co-parenting and communication skills. Will the parent interfere with the rights of the child’s other parent? Can he or she communicate with the child’s other parent without becoming angry, aggressive, or overly emotional?
- Maintaining family bonds. Do the parents support and encourage strong relationships with siblings, grandparents, and other family members?
- Practical considerations. How far do the parents live from each other? Who is closer to the child’s school? Does either parent have employment responsibilities, such as frequent work-related travel, that would affect parenting time?
- Special needs. Does the child have any special needs that must be considered, such as a medical condition requiring access to specialized care?
If no special risks or dangers have arisen, the court often decides it is best to maintain the status quo regarding the child’s current living arrangements. This is in recognition of the fact that coping with major life changes is an emotionally difficult task for a child.
Parental Preferences for Custody and Visitation
Parents are encouraged to make their own custody and visitation agreements, but these arrangements must not violate the child’s best interests. In most cases, parents will be ordered to attend custody and visitation mediation before a trial to attempt to facilitate a settlement without judicial intervention
Allowing Children to Testify in Custody Disputes
New Jersey does not have any specific age guidelines that determine when a child is allowed to express a preference for living with a particular parent. However, if a judge determines the child is mature enough to make an informed decision, he or she can take the child’s wishes into account.
Even if a child is allowed to testify, this does not mean he or she has the final say. The judge can ignore the child’s wishes if it is determined that he or she is unduly influenced by a parent or if other factors suggest the preference is not in the child’s best interests.
The Effect of Gender in Custody Disputes
At one time, courts did routinely favor mothers in child custody disputes. Today, however, New Jersey does not consider a parent’s gender when determining the outcome of a child custody or visitation case. The court recognizes that children do best when they have mothers and fathers who are actively involved in their children’s lives.
How Carl Taylor Law Can Help
At Carl Taylor Law, we believe divorce can be a new beginning for the entire family. Our firm helps parents resolve custody and visitation issues in a way that best fits the needs of the family and allows everyone to move forward with confidence.
Carl Taylor Law is equipped to handle a wide range of custody and visitation concerns, including modifications to initial agreements. Schedule a consultation with divorce and family law attorneys Carl Taylor and Lisa Stein-Browning to learn more.