10 Steps to Getting Child Custody in a New Jersey Court

The process of getting a custody decision varies slightly, especially when a case has special circumstances.

For example, dissolution (divorce) cases have more court appearances. The steps in non-dissolution cases are less formal because parents are often pro se (self-represented). And in cases with domestic violence, the court expedites proceedings.

Regardless, follow the steps below for a general sense of how your case will proceed. Whenever you agree on a parenting plan with the other parent, you can file a settlement and jump to Step 10.

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Step 1: Preparation

Do your research and consider your options. Which types of legal and physical custody will you request? What does your ideal parenting time schedule look like?

Consider hiring an attorney or at least scheduling a consultation for professional advice.

Check your court's website for county-specific information, including local deadlines and time frames.

Step 2: Filing for custody

Open your case through the Family Division of the Superior Court.

Take your documents to the court in your county (for dissolution) or your child's county (for non-dissolution). If extraordinary events require the court to close, you'll file online through Judiciary Electronic Document Submission (JEDS).

Afterward, serve the other parent with copies of the paperwork if you're divorcing. The court will do this for you in a non-dissolution case.

Possible: Consent conference

Parties who disagree on their child's paternity are referred to a consent conference, though either one can opt out.

At the conference, a representative of the court or welfare department hears each party's case for or against paternity, then makes a settlement recommendation.

If parents agree on the father's identity, they sign a Certificate of Parentage. If not, the court schedules DNA testing.

Once paternity is decided, parents have the option to make a parenting plan and jump to Step 10.

Step 3: Parenting education (dissolution cases only)

Divorcing parents take their court's parenting education course unless either one (or their child) has a restraining order against the other. Take it at the start of your case to avoid issues and show commitment. The judge considers whether each parent attended when making custody and visitation decisions.

The course covers options for resolving a case and how to help children cope with divorce, among other topics. Each parent pays $25 for it when they file their initial paperwork. They attend the in-person course separately.

Step 4: Initial case management conference

About 45 days after your case opens, you'll have an initial case management conference. The court will notify you of any documents to bring.

Conferences in dissolution cases can happen over the phone but are typically held in front of the judge. In a non-dissolution case, the conference happens in front of a court officer (similar to a court referee).

The meeting allows the court to gather information and take steps like appointing a guardian ad litem.

You'll also map out the case's progress, setting dates for actions like filing a Case Information Statement, submitting a parenting plan and starting trial.

Step 5: Custody mediation

New Jersey courts offer free and confidential mediation, in which a mediator helps parents talk through their disputes.

Generally, all cases that don't involve domestic violence or other emergency issues go to custody mediation. Some even go before the initial case management conference to expedite the process.

If you reach an agreement, the mediator writes an outline of the terms so you can create a parenting plan. You'll then skip to Step 10.

Step 6: Discovery

Discovery is the exchange of information between parties before trial. It's automatically part of every dissolution case. Parents in non-dissolution cases must file a motion to compel discovery.

Information you might have to turn over includes texts, emails, financial records and medical records. You'll also exchange pleadings (e.g., claims, accusations and legal defenses).

Depositions, where parents and their witnesses answer questions under oath outside of court, are also part of discovery.

Because discovery can last months, it may overlap with other steps.

Possible: Expert assessments

In complicated cases, expert assessments help guide the court's ruling. Generally, the court only orders one if parents can afford the costs (which can reach thousands). A parent can also hire an expert without an order.

The expert is a social worker, psychologist or other family professional. They may conduct home visits, psychological exams, interviews with the family and others close to them, etc. They write a report detailing their findings.

Three types of assessments are common in custody cases:

  • Risk assessment: Examines whether a parent is a danger to their child's well-being
  • Custody neutral assessment: Studies family dynamics and lifestyle
  • Best interest assessment (or custody evaluation): Investigates parental fitness, mental health and behavior, as well as the child's development

Only experts doing a best interest assessment can suggest a specific parenting time schedule.

You can call experts who conduct risk or best interest assessments to testify at trial. Generally, ones who conduct custody neutral assessments do not testify.

Step 7: Early Settlement Panel and economic mediation (dissolution)

A few weeks after discovery ends, divorcing parents attend an Early Settlement Panel if they haven't yet agreed on all financial issues, such as child support. This means they appear at the courthouse before two or three lawyers who propose a solution to their financial disputes.

If parents don't settle at that point, they go to economic mediation for another chance to agree on finances.

Step 8: Additional conferences

You may appear at the courthouse for multiple conferences. Some occur informally in the judge's chambers, while others happen in a courtroom.

Case management conferences check the case's progress. The judge may address motions (requests for orders or rulings), and the parties may exchange discovery. Parents with lawyers usually don't have to attend.

At an intensive settlement conference, the judge gives you a prospective decision to incentivize a settlement. If you settle, jump to Step 10. If not, you can go to private mediation or proceed to trial.

You make preparations for trial at the pre-trial conference. You also have the opportunity to discuss settlement. If you're unable to settle here, the judge sets deadlines for submitting information about what you plan to present at trial.

The judge may ask you to prepare a statement for the pre-trial conference. It should include a proposed parenting plan, an exhibit list (with copies of the exhibits themselves), a witness list and a summary of the argument you'll present in court.

Step 9: Trial

If you're unable to settle your case, you'll go to trial.

A trial gives each parent the chance to present arguments and evidence. After both sides are finished presenting their case, the judge takes a few days to deliberate before making a final decision.

Possible: In camera interview

On a day separate from trial, the judge may privately interview the child with or without a request from a parent. Only the judge, the child and a court reporter are present.

The judge will want to know about the child's relationship with each parent, not whom the child wants to live with. Attorneys and self-represented parents can submit questions, but the judge doesn't have to ask them.

Generally, the older the child, the more weight the judge gives their input. Accusations of abuse are taken seriously regardless of age.

Parents can buy a copy of the transcript, but they cannot discuss its details with anyone without the court's permission.

Step 10: Final custody orders

To conclude your case, the judge signs the final order. This happens after you and the other parent reach a settlement agreement or after the judge makes a decision at trial.

The order specifies legal and physical custody and any necessary requirements like supervised visitation or parenting coordination.

Parents who reach a settlement typically have a parenting plan as the final custody order. Divorcing parents who settle may choose to write the parenting plan in their marital settlement agreement.

For parents who go to trial, the judge only issues a parenting plan if complicated terms, such as supervised exchanges, are necessary.

If you believe there was a legal error, you have 45 days to file an appeal. You can modify the order when there's a significant change in circumstances.

Throughout your case

During the child custody process, you may need to create a parenting plan, draft custody schedules, keep a log of interactions with the other parent, and more.

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

With a parenting plan template, customizable custody calendars, a parenting journal and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to custody.

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

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