Child Custody and Support in New Jersey, the Fundamentals

While divorces and separations can be particularly challenging in and of themselves, they can become even more complex when children are involved - after all, the well-being of children should not be overlooked during a split.

Two of the most important child-related matters that typically need to be addressed when going through a New Jersey divorce include child custody and child support. Sadly, however, resolving these particular disputes is not always simple, especially when the parents cannot work together and come to an independent and mutual understanding.

Establishing Child Custody in New Jersey

In New Jersey, parents who are separated or divorced are expressly encouraged under the law to share in the responsibilities and rights of raising their child. To that end, New Jersey law permits parents to agree upon and create their own child custody arrangement whenever possible, which a court will typically approve so long as the arrangement is not contrary to the best interests of the child.

Indeed, parents themselves are often the ones most capable of assessing their child's needs and best interests, which is why many parents elect to put aside their differences and concentrate on the well-being of their child when engaged in a child custody dispute. In some circumstances, mediation may also be a helpful tool for accomplishing this task.

However, if the parents are unable to come to an agreement regarding the issue of child custody, the court may be asked to take charge and resolve the dispute for them. And, while each parent may be able to submit his or her own proposed custody plan during these disputes, the court's determination will ultimately be guided by the child's best interests. When assessing the best interests of a child, New Jersey courts will examine several important factors, including:

  • The needs of the child
  • The relationship of the child with his or her siblings and parents
  • Each parent's ability to communicate and cooperate in matters related to the child
  • Each parent's willingness to accept custody arrangements, as well as any history of unwillingness by either parent to allow parenting time
  • The fitness of each parent
  • The stability of the home environment offered
  • The location, specifically the geographical proximity, of the parents' homes
  • The amount and quality of the time spent with the child prior to, or subsequent to, the parents' separation
  • Each parent's employment responsibilities
  • Any history of domestic abuse or violence
  • The child's safety as well as the safety or either parent from abuse by the other parent
  • The child’s preference, as long as the child is of sufficient age and capacity to make such a decision
  • The continuity and quality of the child's education
  • The age and number of children involved

After a court reviews the above-mentioned factors, there are several different custody arrangements it may order. For instance, the court may award joint legal custody to the parents, meaning both parents will participate and cooperate in making major decisions regarding the child’s education, health and basic welfare. However, it is important to keep in mind, that joint legal custody does not necessarily mean parents will have equal physical custody. In fact, in joint custody situations, depending on the specific needs of the child and the parents, a child may reside primarily with one parent or alternate between the parents.

On the other hand, a court may decide to award sole legal and physical custody to only one parent, with appropriate visitation rights going to the remaining noncustodial parent. Ultimately, the thing to remember is that a New Jersey court can establish any custody arrangement it determines to be in the best interests of the child.

Modifying New Jersey Child Custody Orders

As every parent knows, when it comes to raising a child, circumstances are bound to change and evolve over time. And, what was once an ideal custody arrangement may no longer be the case. Fortunately, New Jersey law does permit modifications to child custody orders when circumstances warrant.

Specifically, when there is some type of shared parenting plan in place, a modification of said plan may be granted if the party seeking the revision can show a substantial change in circumstances and the change necessitates a modification of custody for the best interests of the child. Interestingly, the same standard is applicable regardless of whether the previous custody arrangement was agreed to by the parents or court ordered.

Child Support Under New Jersey Law

There are many financial considerations that divorcing spouses ultimately need to address, including the issue of asset division. However, while these matters are certainly important, it is crucial not to forget that the needs of children are equally paramount during divorce. Indeed, New Jersey case law has found that it is the state’s public policy to ensure the maintenance of children both prior to and after divorce.

In most circumstances, a noncustodial parent's child support payments are determined in New Jersey by using a set of formal child support guidelines. The guidelines assess the cost of raising a child and subsequently allocate the costs between the parents, making sure to take into consideration their respective incomes.

It is presumed under New Jersey law that these guidelines will be used when calculating support obligations, although this presumption can be rebutted in certain situations upon good cause. If a court elects to deviate from the guidelines, it must then apply a group of statutorily created factors when resolving issues of child support, which include, but are in no way limited to:

  • The needs of the child
  • The child's need and capacity for education, including higher education
  • Each parent's standard of living and economic circumstances
  • All sources of income and assets for each parent
  • Earning capacity of each parent, taking into account their education, experience, skills and custodial responsibilities
  • Age and health of each parent and the child
  • Income and earning capacity of the child

Similar to a custody order, once New Jersey child support obligations are established, they can be modified due to a sufficient change in circumstances. For example, if the income of a noncustodial parent decreases due to job loss, he or she may request a modification of his or her child support obligations. However, a court will carefully scrutinize such a request, particularly if the job loss is connected to the individual's voluntary acts. Alternatively, if the needs of the child increase, a related increase in child support may also be needed.

Legal Assistance May Be Needed

Given the complexities associated with child custody and support and New Jersey, it is impossible for this article to address everything a parent needs to know. Accordingly, if you are a parent currently going through a divorce or are already separated, and are engaged in a child custody or support dispute, you may want to consult with an experienced family law attorney. Regardless of whether you are attempting to seek custody, establish child support or simply enforce a current child-related court order, a skilled attorney can help review your circumstances and fully explain your rights and options.