Child custody issues can be challenging and intensely emotional, regardless of the relationship status of the parents. When spouses choose to divorce, the child custody arrangement becomes a component of the overall marital settlement agreement or final divorce decree. Battles over child custody can occur throughout the divorce process, with some cases requiring litigation at trial. Others proceed in a more cooperative fashion, as parents utilize mediation or another form of alternative dispute resolution to develop a co-parenting plan. Ultimately, the manner in which child custody issues can be resolved during divorce is as variable as the myriad of child custody configurations that may be devised to best serve your family. On the other hand, for unmarried parents, there is no divorce process through which to resolve child custody and related issues, but all of the same significant questions linger. So, what do you need to know about child custody if you are an unmarried parent in New Jersey and you are not in a relationship with your child’s other parent? Read on to find out.
Paternity may be an important issue to address in child custody cases involving unmarried parents. Often, paternity tests are used to confirm the father of the child, which may be necessary to exercise your legal rights as a father or to pursue child support and/or child support enforcement.
New Jersey operates under the “best interests of the child” standard, generally assuming that it is in a child’s best interests to enjoy a relationship with both parents. When determining the best interests of the child as it relates to child custody, courts will consider the child’s age, gender, current and previous relationships with both parents, mental and physical health, educational needs, schedule and activities, and many other factors. Family law judges also assess the respective parents’ abilities to provide for all of the child’s needs, as well as their abilities to maintain a stable environment for the child. Parents with substance abuse or mental health issues, or those who have been accused or convicted of domestic abuse, may be subject to evaluations by the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP), formerly known as the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). DCPP may make a recommendation for supervised visitation or sole custody being granted to one parent.
Similar to the best interests of the child standard as it relates to child custody, New Jersey also operates under the policy that children have a right to financial support from both parents, regardless of the the parents’ relationship status. This means that children are entitled to share in the current income of both parents, which is reflected in child support determinations. For unmarried parents, the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines are used to determine child support. If one parent fails to fulfill his or her child support obligations, the law provides an avenue for enforcing child support orders.
As an unmarried parent, you may also need to make decisions regarding your child’s last name, who will provide for their medical insurance, where they will attend school, with whom they will spend holidays, whether they will be raised in a specific religion, and so many others. Reaching an enforceable child custody arrangement that outlines but physical and legal custody is essential in order to protect your parental rights and your child’s best interests. In the event that one parent relocates, the courts may also be necessary to reach a modified visitation or child custody arrangement.
With so many things to consider, it is highly advisable to consult with a knowledgeable New Jersey family law attorney. The attorneys at Townsend, Tomaio & Newmark will help you to navigate through the complexities of the legal process, assert your rights as a parent, and secure your child’s future. Contact our Morris County offices today to find the answers to your questions and receive a cost-free consultation.