How Divorce Affects Parents and Children: Child Custody

When a couple divorces, there are many questions that need to be answered.  How much alimony will be paid? Where is each partner going to live?  But perhaps the most important question of all: who will have primary custody of the couple’s child? In New Jersey, there are two main aspects of custody that need to be resolved: 1) physical custody, or where the child will actually live and 2) legal custody, or which parent will be responsible for making the child’s life decisions.

Child custody is determined based on the child’s best interests.  Courts will make decisions about physical and legal custody by considering how well each parent can foster the child’s well-being, provide a safe, caring environment and make positive, beneficial decisions on the child’s behalf.  Most of the time, the parties agree upon a joint custody arrangement to be approved by the court. Joint Legal Custody, as it is known in New Jersey, allows both parents to be an active part of their child’s life with one parent acting as the main residential custodian and the other designated as the alternate. Under Joint Legal Custody, both parents are responsible for making life decisions on behalf of the child. Often the residential custodian will make most of the day-to-day decisions and consult with the other parent regarding more substantial decisions. If both parties are unable to come to an agreement, they must submit separate custody plan for the court to review. The court will then review the plan and grant primary custody based on specific considerations such as physical and mental health, location of each parent’s residence and the capability of each parent to efficiently provide for the child.  The child can also state which parent he or she would like to live with. This, however, depends on the age and maturity of the child.

For parents seeking a more equal division of custodial time, New Jersey offers an additional custody option known as Shared Legal and Physical Custody. Under this arrangement, parents may alternate weeks during which their child resides with them, or consider an alternative that divides custodial time in an equitable fashion.

In cases where one parent is absent or deemed unfit to parent, the other parent may serve as the residential custodial parent. This means that the designated parent will make all significant decisions for the child without having to consult with his or her former spouse. These arrangements are known as Sole Legal and Physical Custody.

Unfortunately, there are instances in which one of the parents does not comply with the custody agreement. One party may want full custody of the child or keep the child in retaliation to an outstanding offense‑‑real or perceived. So, what recourse is available for the parents whose rights were violated? If the parent is inclined to believe the child is in danger, they should contact the police, filing a temporary restraining order.  If the child is not in any immediate danger, the parent should contact their attorney. The attorney will then proceed to send out a letter to the former partner, detailing the penalties. In New Jersey, such penalties range from having to make a court appearance to losing custody entirely

Divorce is difficult for all parties involved, but a fair custody arrangement will help children adjust to their new situation.  It is important for both parents to be compliant and willing to work with each other so that the child can continue succeed throughout all future stages of life.

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