New Jersey Child Custody Overview

In New Jersey, custody decisions result from two types of cases: dissolution and non-dissolution.

Dissolution cases are for parents seeking a divorce. Non-dissolution custody cases are for married parents who aren't ready to divorce, parents who've never married each other, grandparents and adult siblings.

You can resolve your case through settlement or litigation. If you settle, you'll draft an agreement with the other parent and file it with the court for approval. Litigation involves presenting evidence and arguments at trial so the judge can make a final custody decision.

Some aspects of child custody vary by case, judge and county.

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Legal and physical custody

There are two types of custody: legal custody and physical custody.

Legal custody determines who can make decisions regarding the child's education, health care, religion and other matters children aren't mature enough to handle themselves.

Sole legal custody gives one parent the right to make such decisions. This is unusual and reserved for circumstances when the other parent is unfit or unavailable to participate in decision making.

Joint legal custody is most common in New Jersey since it allows both parents to have input. Parents or the judge can choose to divide decision-making responsibilities, for example, letting one parent make educational decisions and the other make medical decisions.

Physical custody determines where the child lives and how many overnights the child spends with each parent.

Sole physical custody names a primary or custodial parent who gets the majority of parenting time, while the other parent (the non-custodial parent) gets time equivalent to 103 or fewer overnights per year. The court may require supervised visitation for the non-custodial parent if it's unsafe for the child to be alone with them.

Shared physical custody, the most common arrangement, means the child lives with each parent for at least 104 overnights per year. One parent is named the parent of primary residence while the other is the parent of alternate residence. This affects who pays child support and where the child goes to school.

Opening a case

Begin your case by filing a complaint with the Family Division of the Superior Court. If extraordinary events require the court to close, you'll file online through Judiciary Electronic Document Submission (JEDS).

For a dissolution (divorce) case, file your paperwork with the Superior Court in your county of residence. In addition to custody, these cases involve child support and the division of assets and property, among other marital matters.

For a non-dissolution (non-divorce) case, file your paperwork with the Superior Court in your child's county of residence. Through your custody complaint, you may also request child support or the establishment of paternity (more below), among other reliefs.

Non-native English speakers and deaf or hard of hearing parents can request an interpreter through the complaint. Languages include Albanian, American Sign Language, Chinese, French, Greek, Hindi, Japanese and Spanish.

Upon filing, the court clerk assigns a docket number to your case. Due to the letters preceding the docket numbers, attorneys and the court often refer to dissolution and non-dissolution cases as FM and FD cases, respectively.

Parentage and paternity

You must be legally recognized as your child's parent before you can petition for a custody or child support order.

Mothers are automatically recognized as the legal parent of any child they give birth to.

If a child is conceived or born during a heterosexual marriage, the husband is automatically recognized as the child's father.

Fathers who are not married to the mother at their child's conception or birth can establish paternity by signing a Certificate of Parentage with the mother. Both parents have 60 days after signing to cancel the acknowledgment.

If either parent refuses to sign a Certificate of Parentage, they can fill out a Certification in Support of Establishing Paternity to begin paternity proceedings. They'll be referred to a consent conference, and if they can't reach an understanding, the court will schedule DNA testing.

Legal fathers can deny being the child's biological father through an Affidavit Denying Paternity. Another way to request the court disestablish paternity is to open a custody case. The court will order genetic testing and hold a hearing where a judge will determine whether to change the legal parent.

If you've taken a parental role for a child who isn't biologically yours, you can establish yourself as the child's emotional parent to obtain custodial rights.

Mediation

New Jersey typically requires parents in non-violent relationships to participate in court mediation, unless they're ready to settle. A mediator facilitates discussions on how to resolve disagreements. If parents reach an agreement on all issues, they can settle and forgo trial.

Dissolution and non-dissolution cases both have mediation for custody and parenting time. Dissolution cases have a separate mediation for financial matters if parents don't settle these during their Early Settlement Panel.

Factors in custody decisions

When dealing with custody, New Jersey judges must act in the best interests of the child involved. Before making a final decision in trial or approving a proposed settlement, they consider several factors, including each parent's:

  • Parental fitness
  • Willingness to accept custody
  • Criminal or violent history
  • Capacity to provide for the child
  • Time spent with the child
  • History of disallowing the other parent visitation (excluding cases of abuse)
  • Living arrangements
  • Work schedules
  • Number of children
  • Ability to communicate about and cooperate on co-parenting

Judges also consider the child's:

  • Needs and safety
  • Age and ability
  • Relationships with parents and siblings
  • Preference (if they're mature enough to make an informed decision)
  • Educational prospects

In addition, reports from a custody evaluator or guardian ad litem can impact the judge's ruling.

Length of custody proceedings

The length of the court process depends on the number of issues in dispute and the court calendar. Parents can reach a settlement at any point to conclude the process.

New Jersey recommends dissolution cases resolve within a year of the filing date. However, cases commonly exceed this timeline due to the complexity of dividing assets and property.

Non-dissolution custody cases generally last two to six months. The court assumes that these cases have fewer issues in dispute, so the process is quicker and less formal. If you ask the court for reliefs besides custody, such as child support, the process will take slightly longer.

Costs to expect

During your custody case, you may incur filing fees, attorney fees and the cost of a custody evaluation or assessment.

There's no fee to start a non-dissolution action, whereas fling a complaint for dissolution costs $300. Parents in dissolution cases must also pay $25 each for the parenting education course and $50 every time they file a motion. If you cannot afford court fees, you can apply for a fee waiver.

Attorney fees vary based on the lawyer's experience and location. Generally, hourly fees range from $250 to $450. You'll have to pay at least a portion up front, based on how many hours the attorney expects to work on your case.

In a dissolution, attorney fees can reach over $12,000 to cover pre-trial proceedings and double if the case goes to trial. Non-dissolution custody cases that go to trial cost around $4,500 and up.

If you want a lawyer but cannot afford one, reach out to a legal services office in your area to see if you qualify for free representation. Another option is to represent yourself (more below).

Your case may require a custody neutral assessment, which costs $1,000, or a custody evaluation, which typically costs $5,000 to $10,000.

The more time you spend in court, the more costs you incur. The most cost-effective option is to settle as soon as possible. An alternative dispute resolution method — like mediation, which New Jersey courts offer for free — can help you settle quickly, potentially saving you thousands.

Representing yourself

Due to the intricacy of the law, it's highly recommended you hire an attorney to handle your case. Even if you have a settlement ready, you should hire a legal professional; they can look over the agreement to ensure it covers all the bases and is formatted correctly.

If you choose to represent yourself, utilize the resources available to parents without attorneys, such as law libraries. Familiarize yourself with Title 9 of the New Jersey statutes. Keep in mind that the court won't give you preferential treatment and you'll be held to the same standards as an attorney.

Staying organized

The process of deciding custody requires serious organization. You may need to create a parenting plan, draft multiple parenting time schedules, track your time with your child, calculate expenses and beyond.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of that in one place.

With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, an expense tracker and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to child custody.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

Custody X Change is software that creates customizable parenting plans and custody schedules.

Make My New Jersey Plan Now

Custody X Change is software that creates customizable parenting plans and custody schedules.

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Custody X Change is software that creates customizable parenting plans and custody schedules.

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