Before engaging in expensive and emotionally draining litigation, it is important to understand the three different types of custody.
New Jersey's statuses promote the idea that both parents should be extensively involved in their child's life. Sole custody puts the power of raising the child on a day-to-day basis with one parent. This type of custody is becoming outdated except when it is clearly in the best interest of the child.
JOINT LEGAL CUSTODY
This allows both parents to have as ignificant role in raising their child. However, the term "joint legal custody" has nothing to do with the time sharing arrangements between parents. Therefore, parents can share joint legal custody, but one of the parents will still be designated the "primary residential parent." This means that in all matters of any significance involving the child, the parties must consult and agree to a resolution.
SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY
Over the past several years, the concept of Shared Residential Custody has gained more acceptance. This does not mean, however, that each party necessarily has 50 percent of the time with the child. It simply means that negotiated parenting time is scheduled, something well-beyond the traditional "every other weekend." Shared Residential Custody also impacts the child support obligations of the individual parties.
BEST INTEREST OF THE CHILD
Overriding all of these labels is the concept of "best interest of the child.". New Jersey has particular criteria which are examined by the courts such as: the mental and physical health and the historical involvement of the two parents, the physical and emotional environment, as well as educational opportunities. A skilled family law practicioner should be able to work with his or her adversary to negotiate these issues. In New Jersey, the courts have set up specific procedures to help resolve custody cases before they ever reach the courts. These programs vary from county to county, but are often times quite effective in helping parties resolve their dispute.
If the parties are unable to resolve their differences, the last resort is litigration. Litigation empowers a judge to make a decision that will impact the child's life forever. A trial is a long and arduous process involving testimony of mental health professionals and any and all other witnesses that each party wishes to call. It is extremely expensive and, of course, unpredictable.
CUSTODY LITIGATION IN NEW JERSEY
New Jersey courts observe the following rules involving custody litigation. Parents and children are entitled to have the case decided on an expedited basis in order to minimize disruption. It is likely that each party (often including the children) will undergo extensive custody evaluations. These can include: psychological assessments, risk assessments and evaluation of the willingness to cooperate with the other parent to foster the relationship.
Depending on the age of the child, the court will normally interview him or her. This is done privately in a judge's chambers on a very informal basis. The child's preference is not determinative of the outcome until he or she reaches 13 or 14 year of age. Even then, the court is not bound by the child's wishes.
Regardless of the court's decision, depending on the age of the child and the circumstances surrounding the parent, any showing of a substantial material change in circumstances which might be detrimental to the child's emotional or physical well-being can result in a modification of the custody agreement.
Neither party has the right to move or remove the child from the jurisdiction in which that child lives without specific consent or a court order. Such activity would virtually eliminate that party involvement in the child's life.
CHILD SUPPORT IS FOR THE CHILD
The dissolving of a relationship should have no impact on the economic welfare of the child. Regardless of whether the family income is high or low, whether the individual incomes of the spouses are similar or vary greatly, the child's lifestyle should not be unduly affected.
Determining Payment Amounts
Under the current Child Support Guidelines, the amount of financial support that you receive or will be expected to pay is based on several factors.
Financial Requirement of the Child Support Guidelines:
The Courts tend to follow pre-established guidelines for those situations in which the parents' combined net income is up to $187,500. It is important to understand that the Court is not necessarily limited to these figures.
Where the family income exceeds $187,500, the Court determines the financial support required to maintain the child's lifestyle. The decision is based upon several criteria, including the age of the child, special health, educational and emotional needs and the lifestyle the child has historically enjoyed.
Child support is considered to cover food, clothing and shelter. Other costs, such as college expenses, health insurance and day care all need to be considered separately.
Relative Net Incomes of the Parents
The amount of each parent’s responsibility toward the pre-determined figure is based on his or her relative contribution to the combined net income. This is the basic Child Support Award. For example, if it is determined that the traditional non-custodial parent earns 60% of the combined net income, he or she will be expected to pay 60% of the child's expenses.
Shared Parenting and Visitation Adjustments
The Child Support Guidelines also adjusts child support awards to reflect the child related cost for parents who share custody of their children. In other words, child support can be adjusted downward in favor of the non-custodial parent if that parent maintains an alternative residence for the child and has custody of the child for at least two or more overnights per week.
The payment of child support is a serious issue. Where a payor fails to pay his or her fair share, it may be required that payments be made through a county probation department. ln addition, wages can be attached. Chronic nonpayment can even result in incarceration.
Making the Process Easier
The Child Support Guidelines consider issues of health insurance, various types of shared expenses, definitions of "regular and shared parenting arrangements" and must be addressed carefully. However, they become less cumbersome if one understands the process and follows a few simple steps:
- Pick an attorney carefully. Your lawyer should:
- Understand your needs and issues
- Organize and complete all relevant financial documents
- Carefully analyze guidelines for your particular case
- Try to negotiate an agreement before applying to court
- Be fully familiar with the Child Support Guidelines and how they apply
Help control the cost of the process. Come prepared. Meet with your attorney armed with information including your prior years tax return, W2 statement, current pay stubs, estimate of personal and family expenses, and where possible, the other parent's income information. If you are seeking a modification, also besure to bring any prior court orders. Understand that child support is often based on specific Supreme Court guidelines and criteria. Above all else, ultimately child support is about the welfare of the child. When this is recognized by both parties, all relevant issues can be resolved with far less emotional and financial trauma.