When you decide to divorce and you have children, securing time with your kids through custody arrangements and parenting time plans is often the most pressing issue to resolve in your divorce — and also the most contentious. How do you know which custody options are right for your children? How do you see beyond your own hurt to make healthy decisions for your family? And how can you avoid custody battles that end up leaving everyone scarred in their wake?
Right now, it may be extremely painful for you to contemplate losing any time with your kids, or you may feel like your spouse is waging a war to alienate you from your children. Out of anger and resentment, one of you may have already demanded “full custody” of your kids, without stopping to consider what this legal maneuver truly means for your children’s future well-being.
There is little doubt about it, the issues surrounding child custody cases can be complicated – both legally and emotionally.
Here’s a closer look at custody options, the fault lines where things can very wrong as you try to make decisions, and the creative steps you can take to secure your relationships with your children without going to war with your ex.
Custody Options: What’s In Your Child’s Best Interests?
In New Jersey, it’s the law that custody decisions must be made with the best interest of the child in mind. So what’s best for your child? First, consider these basic ingredients to any child custody agreement.
Child custody agreements between parents address two different types of custody:
Legal custody: refers to a parent’s right and responsibility to make major decisions for a child such as medical decisions, school choice, and the child’s religious practice. Legal custody also gives parents the ability to access academic and medical records.
Physical custody (sometimes referred to as residential custody): refers to the actual physical care and supervision of your child, and who your child lives with on a day-to-day basis.
The goal of the child custody process — whether you are negotiating out of court through mediation or going before a judge in court — is to arrange these two custody types into a configuration that protects the child’s best interests.
Which custody arrangement is best for you?
Joint custody: with this option, both parents can be involved in making legal decisions, but one parent typically has a much greater amount of physical custody time (parent of primary residence) than the other parent, who maintains parenting time (visitation) with the child. The child’s schedule with each parent is codified into a formal parenting time plan.
Joint custody arrangements are generally preferred when one parent is in a better position to physically care for the child, due to work or other reasons on the part of the other parent. Joint custody allows the parent to remain solidly in their child’s life and to play a decision-making role. Joint custody is the most common type of custody arrangement in New Jersey.
Shared custody: means that each parent receives roughly equal amounts of parenting time spent with the child; the goal of shared custody is for a more equal distribution of time between the child and the parents. Shared custody is ideal when the parents are able to cooperate and agree on basic decisions without confrontation.
Sole custody: refers to one parent being awarded full physical or legal custody – or both. The parent awarded sole legal and physical custody makes all of the major decisions regarding the child (health, education, and welfare), as well as all day-to-day decisions without the need to consult with or notify the noncustodial parent. Sole custody is usually applied in cases where one parent is deemed to be absent or unfit. In some cases, the non-custodial parent may be able to seek visitation/parenting time with the child in a supervised or unsupervised setting, depending on the circumstances.
Drawing (and Erasing) Custody Battle Lines
Child custody options may seem like they fit into neat and tidy boxes — but last time we checked, life is anything but neat and tidy. Battle lines in child custody disputes are all too easy to draw. But these are lines that can be erased. If you are having trouble coming to an agreement on child custody, here are some creative ways to start moving forward.
Battle line: You both want “full custody” of your children — both legal and physical — and are unwilling to listen to any other custody option.
How to erase: In New Jersey, family law establishes that generally, it is in a child’s best interests to maintain relationships with each of their parents. This is why — unless extenuating factors such as abuse, domestic violence, abandonment, and drug use are involved — the courts rarely grant sole legal and physical custody to one parent.
If you and your spouse are locked in the “I want the kids all the time” fight, a creative way to move past this impasse is to try mediation. Having a mediator outline what a joint custody/visitation parenting time plan in your situation might look like in reality, for example, might help you both understand that you can still get considerable solo time with your children in a joint plan — maybe much more than you thought possible!
Other practical steps a mediator might suggest to help move forward include having both of you write down your work and personal schedules for a typical year.
•Do you work 80 hours a week? Do you frequently travel for business? Are your work hours often unpredictable? (If you are an on-call doctor, for example.)
•Are you or your ex involved in a new relationship and often spend weekends away with this person?
•Do your children have any special emotional or medical needs that may make it more difficult for them to frequently move between house?
•Are there special days, including holidays, work and school vacations, that are a priority for you to spend with your kids? Are you willing to negotiate other times as long as you get these days with your kids?
When you see all this information, it can be much easier to step back and reassess what’s best for your kids — and for you as a parent. For example, is it fair to your child for you to fight for sole custody when you work all the time and have a new partner, and your child will end up spending quite a bit of time with a nanny?
Battle line: Your spouse ran to court to convince the judge that you are an “bad parent” as a ploy to get the custody option they want. You feel you have no choice but to hit back with your own allegations.
How to erase: Resist the urge to sling mud back. Instead, tell the truth, present your case thoroughly for the option you think is best, and stay focussed on your children — and not any bitter feelings for your ex.
Judges realize that bad mouthing or outright lying is an unfortunate side effect of many divorce cases, especially those involving contested or complex child custody issues. One way to strengthen your side is to start keeping a custody journal that details the time you spend with your kids. Making a simple record of how you spent your parenting time can be a powerful piece of evidence to present in court to substantiate your custody and parenting time requests — and to defuse your ex’s accusations. Take photos and keep souvenirs and receipts to add further veracity to your written accounts of your time with your kids.
Battle line: Your spouse is creating tension between you and your kids by making hostile comments about you in their presence and/or not allowing them to take your phone calls or see you for visits. All of this seems to be a ploy by the other parent to help them in their demands for full custody.
How to erase: Alienating behavior can have such a devastating effect on the parent-child relationship that seeking outside intervention from the courts may be in your best interests. Third parties such as child custody evaluators and other psychological experts may be brought in, both to verify your ex’s alienating behaviors and to reduce their impact. In New Jersey, while each case is decided based on its own merits, the consequences of parental alienation can be severe, including the offending parent having his or her custody rights limited.
What should you do right now? Before the alienation has more time to fester, talk with a family law attorney about which legal options may be best for you, the kind of evidence you should gather, and steps you can take right now to enforce rights you have under any current custody agreement. Your attorney can also make suggestions for therapists, evaluators and other needed outside experts.
Answers to Your Child Custody Questions
Are your child custody questions keeping you up at night? We understand — and we can help. Our highly skilled and experienced family law attorneys have the compassion and mastery you need to bring about positive results that will safeguard your children and protect your relationships with them.
Call us today at 888-888-0919 to schedule a free consultation to learn more about custody options and which arrangement could be right for your family. Get answers to all your burning questions! Click the button below to take the first step.