Filing for Child Custody in New Jersey: 4 Steps
Either way, you'll begin by filing for custody — in other words, opening a case.
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In New Jersey, the court hears custody issues in dissolution and non-dissolution cases.
Dissolution cases are divorces. Non-dissolution cases allow parents who aren't married to each other, married parents who don't want to divorce, grandparents and adult siblings to request custody.
If you hire a legal professional, such as an attorney or mediator, they'll file your case for you. Otherwise, follow the steps below to open your case. Note that some procedures vary by case and court.
Step 1: Fill out your forms
If any of the following forms aren't available online, you can obtain them from the Superior Court Ombudsman.
Every line of each document must contain a response. If something does not apply or you're unsure, write "N/A."
The parent starting the case is the plaintiff, while the other parent is the defendant. (Defendants can skip to "Responding to a complaint" below.)
To file for divorce, you must have lived in New Jersey for at least a year. If the reason for divorce is adultery, you can apply sooner. Complete the following forms to begin your case. In the blank line for the county, write your county of residence.
- Complaint for Divorce: States the ground for divorce (if any) and what you're seeking in terms of custody, child support, etc.
- Certification of Verification and Non-collusion: Affirms that the allegations within the complaint are true and no one else needs to be involved
- Certification of No Pending Proceedings: Certifies that you don't have any ongoing court proceedings regarding disputes listed in your complaint
- Certification Regarding Redaction of Personal Identifiers: Confirms you redacted or didn't include personal identifiers like social security numbers on filing documents
- Certification of Insurance Coverage: Lists insurance policies held by the spouses
- Summons: Notifies the defendant of the case and orders them to appear in court
- Case Information Statement: Details each spouse's finances (You can file this after opening the case, if you prefer.)
If you don't have an attorney, complete a Certification by Self-Represented Litigant, as well.
If you have a settlement ready, write on your complaint that you want your agreement's terms to be incorporated into the final judgment. You'll need to file the settlement agreement once you finish opening your case and serving the other parent.
To begin a non-dissolution custody action, you'll complete a Verified Complaint. List your child's county of residence on the blank line for the county, and check the boxes for all the reliefs you're seeking (e.g., custody, parenting time, child support, paternity). You won't be able to add requests later.
If you have a settlement ready, use line 10 of the complaint to state that you want your agreement's terms to be incorporated into a court order. You'll need to file the settlement agreement once you finish opening your case.
If you're requesting child support orders, complete a Child Support Application and a Financial Statement for Summary Support Actions. Attach the child's Certificate of Parentage (not the birth certificate) to prove the child's legal parents.
If the child's paternity has not been legally declared, fill out a Certification in Support of Establishing Paternity.
Married parents who are seeking spousal support complete a Case Information Statement.
Certain forms apply to both dissolution and non-dissolution cases. Complete those necessary for your situation.
- Confidential Litigant Information Sheet: Required in order to collect basic information about the people in the case (Each parent must complete one.)
- Additional Information Sheet: Allows you to add any case-related information you ran out of space for
- Emergent Application: Asks the court to schedule a hearing on emergency issues (e.g., child abuse) so you can get an emergency custody order
- Motion: Asks the court to take an action in the case, such as issuing a temporary custody order
- Certification of Diligent Search: Confirms that you looked for the defendant if you do not know their whereabouts
- Certification/Petition/Application in Support of a Fee Waiver: Provides information about your finances to explain why you cannot afford court fees
Step 2: Finalize your forms
Remove any instruction sheets, and make sure all paperwork is signed.
Make at least two copies of each form. Divorcing parents should black out all personal identifiers (e.g., social security numbers) on the summonses they won't keep.
If you're not applying for a fee waiver, attach cash, check or money order to the court's copies for the fees applicable to your case:
- Complaint for Divorce - $300 (all dissolution cases)
- Parenting education course registration - $25 (all dissolution cases)
- Motion - $50 (only dissolution cases that file this document)
- Child Support Application - $6 (only non-dissolution cases that file this document)
Step 3: Mail or deliver your paperwork to the courthouse
Give your documents (the originals, plus two copies of each) to the Family Division of the Superior Court in the county you listed on your paperwork. You can find courthouse addresses on the New Jersey Courts website.
You may submit documents by certified mail or hand delivery, though Emergent Applications must be hand-delivered. If extraordinary events require the court to close, you'll file online through Judiciary Electronic Document Submission.
When filing by certified mail, write "Family Division Dissolution Intake" or "Family Division Non-Dissolution Intake" below the court's address on the envelope, based on your type of case. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope so the court can return a copy of the complaint to you with your docket number on it.
When filing in person, give your documents to the court clerk. They'll assign a docket number and hand you a copy of the complaint with the number on it.
This is the last step in a non-dissolution filing. The court will send copies of the necessary forms to the defendant, and you'll both receive a Notice to Appear that lists the date of your first court appearance and any documents you should bring.
Step 4: Serve the other parent (dissolution only)
In a dissolution case, you must serve the defendant within 30 days of filing initial paperwork with the court, otherwise your case will stall. Serving is how parents inform one another of court actions and exchange court documents.
The service packet should include a copy of the summons, the complaint with the docket number on it, a Certification of Insurance, a Certification of Complementary Dispute Resolution and printed lists of attorney referral services and legal services offices.
There are two ways to serve: mail and personal service.
Attach the necessary documents to the cover letter in the order the letter lists them, and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope so the defendant may return the acknowledgment. Send the complete packet via certified mail to the other parent's last known address (home or workplace).
If the defendant sends back a signed acknowledgment, make two copies to file with the court along with a filing letter and certified mail card. If the defendant does not send the acknowledgment back, you must use personal service.
You, a sheriff's officer or a process server can personally serve the defendant at their last known address.
If you serve, fill out an Affidavit of Service afterward, and file it with the court.
If you want a sheriff's officer to serve, contact the local sheriff's office. Fees vary by county, but they typically hover around $24 to have one defendant served, plus another fee based on how far the officer must travel. The office will inform you and the court once service is complete.
Another option is to hire a private process server. They usually charge around $70. Afterward, the server must complete an Affidavit of Service and return it to you, so you can file the form and a receipt from the server with the court.
Responding to a complaint (defendants only)
After being served, you have 35 days to file a response at the court listed on the complaint.
If you don't respond, the court can enter a default judgment against you (unless you're in the military), giving you no say in the case.
Some parents use a default judgment as a way to unofficially settle when the plaintiff has requested terms that the defendant agrees with. However, this isn't recommended because it leaves the defendant unprotected.
Whether you agree or disagree with the plaintiff's requests, here are the forms you'll need to respond.
No matter how you respond, you'll complete a Confidential Litigant Information Sheet and pay $25 to register for a parenting education course.
If you have a settlement ready, file an Appearance or Acceptance of Service form (available from the Superior Court Ombudsman) to show you will appear in court to confirm the terms of the settlement. There's a $175 filing fee.
If you're contesting the case and have claims of your own, submit an Answer and Counterclaim for Divorce/Dissolution. There's a $250 filing fee.
If you're contesting the case but not making claims of your own, write an answer (directions below). There's a $175 filing fee.
Contested responses must include the following completed forms. Any that aren't online are available from the ombudsman.
- Certification Regarding Redaction of Personal Identifiers
- Certification Verification and Non-Collusion
- Certification of Insurance Coverage
Certain respondents must complete and file the following documents as well:
- Certification by Self-Represented Litigant — If you won't have an attorney
- Case Information Statement — If you're seeking alimony or child support
- Certification/Petition/Application in Support of a Fee Waiver — If you cannot afford filing fees
First, fill out a Confidential Litigant Information Sheet.
If you're settling with the other parent, no other forms are required at this point, but you or your attorney could draft and file an answer (instructions below) to show that you'll participate in the case.
If you're contesting the case and have claims of your own, file a Counterclaim that explains what you're seeking. If you're contesting without claims of your own, file an answer. In either situation, you could instead explain your requests at the initial case management conference.
There are no fees to respond to a non-dissolution complaint.
Writing an answer
If you need to create this document, type "Answer" at the top. Copy the court's name, parties' names and case number as they appear on the complaint.
Below that, write whether you admit to or deny each of the plaintiff's claims, but do not provide reasons. For example, if you disagree with the first paragraph, write: "1. I deny the allegations in paragraph one."
Preparing for what comes next
The next step in the court process depends on your county and your case. You may attend a consent conference, a parenting education course, an initial case management conference or mediation.
No matter what's next for you, take advantage of technology to be fully prepared.
You can use it to put together proposals for the other parent, negotiate, prepare settlement paperwork or organize evidence.
Be prepared for every step of your case with Custody X Change.
Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.