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How Do NJ Courts Determine a Child’s Best Interests?

Child custody disputes are among the most emotional in a divorce proceeding. Both parents sometimes dig in their heels for what they believe is best for their child.

When parents cannot reach an agreement, the decision on custody and parenting time can ultimately be made by a judge in the county’s Family Division of the Superior Court.

New Jersey judges are required to consider specific factors when determining what is in the best interests of a child. What is deemed “best” is not necessarily the wishes of either parent.

Both Parents Begin on Equal Ground

Neither parent has a natural advantage over the other in child custody matters. That was not always the case.

Up until the 20th century, fathers were given custody of children in rare cases of divorce. This preference was enshrined in law because women had few individual rights. In the 1900s, the pendulum swung in the other direction, giving presumptive custody to mothers in what is called the Tender Years Doctrine. This legal principle fell out of favor in the late 1960s and early 1970s. State courts began to rule the presumption given to mothers violated the father’s right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

States, including New Jersey, have since switched to the “best interests of the child” rule. Both parents have an equal right to custody of their children. As a matter of public policy, New Jersey believes that a child should have meaningful relationships with both parents. Removing a parent’s right only occurs in extreme cases where the child would be endangered.

Statutory Considerations in Child Custody Cases

New Jersey statutes provide specific factors that a judge must consider when determining how to award custody. This state recognizes two types of custody, legal and physical. Physical custody refers to where the child lives. Legal custody refers to the decision-making powers of the parents. Judges can award sole or joint custody in either custody type.

When parents cannot agree to a custody arrangement, the court may require each parent to submit a custody plan for the court to consider in awarding custody.

The law mandates that the best interests of the child be given primary consideration. Other factors the court must consider include the following:

  • The parents' ability to agree, communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the child
  • The parents' willingness to accept custody and any history of unwillingness to allow parenting time not based on substantiated abuse
  • The interaction and relationship of the child with its parents and siblings
  • The history of domestic violence, if any
  • The safety of the child and the safety of either parent from physical abuse by the other parent
  • The preference of the child when of sufficient age and capacity to form an intelligent decision
  • The needs of the child
  • The stability of the home environment offered
  • The quality and continuity of the child's education
  • The fitness of the parents
  • The geographical proximity of the parents' homes
  • The extent and quality of the time spent with the child prior to or after the separation
  • The parents' employment responsibilities
  • The number of children and their ages

For agreements negotiated between parents, the court still has the final say. The court typically approves agreed-upon arrangements unless the judge determines it is against the child’s best interests.

Legal Counsel in Custody Negotiation and Litigation

Whether a child custody dispute is linked to divorce or a separate action, the legal team at Lane & Lane, LLC has more than 60 years of combined experience helping New Jersey parents fight for what is best for their children.

Our compassionate and pragmatic attorneys are highly skilled in negotiating with opposing counsel and vigorously arguing for our client in court. Child custody is a complex and sensitive area in family law. We will provide you with a personalized legal approach to support your goals.

Schedule a consultation to discuss your child custody case. Contact us online or call (908) 259-6673.