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How does New Jersey determine a child’s best interests?

In New Jersey, as in other states, the courts prioritize your child’s best interests in all custody matters. In other words, custody decisions are never about what is best for the parents; they are focused on what is best for the child.  If the parents cannot agree on what is best for the child, then the court must decide.  How do they do this?

With an issue as important as custody, it should come as no surprise that the process is complicated.  A judge has to put him/herself in the position of a parent to determine what is best for a child.  The judge must then consider a number of factors that impact a child’s wellbeing.

Factors the courts will consider

According to New Jersey law, a judge must consider several factors to determine what custody and parenting arrangement is in the best interest of your child.  Although other consideration may come into play, the court begins by analyzing the following:

  • Each parent’s willingness to communicate and cooperate in the care of their child
  • Each parent’s willingness to accept custody decisions and share parenting time as directed
  • The child’s relationships with parents and siblings
  • Any history of domestic violence
  • Safety from physical abuse, for both the child and parents
  • The preferences of children old enough to form reasonable opinions
  • The child’s individual needs
  • Stability in the home environment
  • The quality of the child’s education
  • The fitness of the parents
  • The physical distance between the parents’ homes
  • The amount and quality of the time each parent spent with the child before separating
  • Each parent’s work responsibilities
  • The ages and number of children in question

Information about these factors is usually gathered from a variety of sources.  Each parent can provide testimony, but that is not the end of the court’s review.  The court also looks to documents and other supporting evidence, as well as testimony from third parties and even expert opinions.  This is all part of the process of litigating the issue of custody and parenting.

Understanding the process

It is not common for custody disputes to go directly to trial before a judge.  Rather, most parents are first directed to participate in mediation and engage in their own negotiations to attempt to reach an agreement.  If they are unable to agree, the court may require the involvement of an expert to conduct an evaluation and make a recommendation to the court.  There are different types of expert evaluation of custody that range in how much they cost, how long they take and how involved the expert becomes.  The type of evaluation appropriate in a given matter is either agreed upon by the parties and their attorneys or dictated by the court.

The report and recommendations of an expert focus on the factors in the law.  The expert’s observations and recommendations are taken seriously by the court and carry a lot of weight in custody trials.  If an expert is going to be involved in your custody dispute, it is important to work with an experienced attorney to help prepare you for the evaluation and discuss what you can expect.

How to put your best foot forward

For some parents, it may be unnerving to think the court has the power to dictate when they get to spend time with their child.  That is why it is important to understand and be prepared for the process.  An attorney with knowledge of family law can help you present evidence regarding your child’s wellbeing in the most effective way to ensure it is considered by the court.

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