Changing circumstances and growing children can mean that previous custody orders are no longer appropriate for your family. Changes to child custody, also known as custody modifications, are quite common. However, they're not always easy to achieve in New Jersey. Generally, a judge must find that:
- A substantial change in circumstances occurred since the making of the existing custody order
- A modification would be in the best interests of the children involved
Child custody modifications include changes to legal custody or decision-making authority, as well as significant changes to the parenting time schedule. Parents and guardians often have strong feelings about modifications since the welfare of the child may be at stake.
Whether you're hoping to make a change to child custody or opposing a modification request, an experienced family law attorney can help you navigate a stressful legal case. The attorneys at Villani & DeLuca have years of experience helping mothers, fathers, grandparents, and other legal guardians handle complex and emotional custody issues.
When Parents Agree That Custody Should Change
Sometimes both parents recognize that their current custody plan is no longer working. A child's new school or sports schedules, behavioral issues, or even preferences about living arrangements may influence parenting time arrangements. A parent's changing work obligations or medical needs may also necessitate a new schedule. Parents who have retained a somewhat amicable relationship might agree on the need for a new shared parenting schedule or a family may have already started following a new and more convenient parenting plan.
The experienced child custody lawyers at Villani & DeLuca recommend that parents put changes to their custody plan in writing and file the document with the court. A judge will almost always approve these agreed-upon modifications as long as they appear to be in the best interests of the children. Putting changes in writing with the court ensures that both parents and any important third parties, like doctors or schools, have documentation of the new custody plan. Even if you and the other parent are getting along now, you may have disagreements in the future. A written document provides stability for the children and ensures that no one can change their mind in anger.
If you're considering an agreement to modify child custody, it's wise to speak with a family law attorney before signing or filing documents with the court. A lawyer can give you valuable advice and help you draft terms that will effectively implement the desired changes. Vague terms can lead to problems later if parents no longer agree on what the terms mean. A judge may interpret a poorly drafted agreement differently than you intended. Legal counsel can work to create a strong agreement that will protect your rights should conflicts arise in the future.
If One Parent Wants to Relocate Outside of New Jersey
Courts have ruled that adults generally have a constitutional right to travel freely within the United States, and that includes the right to live in any state. Therefore, a judge cannot order an adult to live in a particular state. However, this issue becomes complicated when the adult shares custody of a child.
A noncustodial parent is free to move out of New Jersey if they're not planning to take their child with them, although a greater distance between parents may require a new visitation schedule. However, if a parent with sole or joint custody of a child wishes to move out of state with the child, consent from the other parent or a court order is required by New Jersey law.
These cases sometimes lead to vicious court battles because there may be very little room for a compromise. A judge will consider the child's best interests and how the child might be affected by the relocation. The judge may also examine the reason for the relocation: a parent who is moving for a compelling reason like a career opportunity or ailing family member may have a stronger case than a parent who seems to be moving out of spite. NJ courts may also be more likely to allow a relocation if a parent is moving for the benefit of a child, such as a child's need for medical treatment outside the state.
When There Is a Substantial Change in Circumstances
Another common reason a parent can ask a NJ court to change child custody orders is after there has been a substantial change in circumstances.
The law does not provide a list of specific circumstances that qualify for a modification of custody, nor does it give a clear definition of what constitutes a substantial change. If you're wondering whether your situation qualifies for a modification of custody, you may wish to speak with a lawyer experienced in handling these types of cases.
Some examples of situations that may justify a change in custody include:
- An older, mature child expresses a desire to live with their other parent.
- A custodial parent has become violent or developed a substance abuse issue
- There are significant changes to the medical or educational needs of a child that make a custody modification beneficial
- A custodial parent has grown neglectful or is otherwise endangering the child
Sometimes, something as simple as a child's age and changing needs mean that a custody modification is appropriate. For example, a child who is starting school for the first time or moving up to high school may require a different schedule than they did at the time existing custody orders were made.
Additionally, the court may order a change in custody to remedy situations where one parent consistently refuses to follow the existing plan. In these situations, the court may award additional parenting time or authority over the children to the compliant parent.
There's no way to predict every possible scenario that may cause a need for a change to custody orders. If you're concerned that the custody orders currently in place are not serving your child's best interests, a New Jersey family lawyer can offer advice about your options.
The Best Interests of the Child Are Important
Just as in initial custody determinations, New Jersey courts strongly consider a child's best interests in any custody modification matters. The court will consider the factors listed under New Jersey Statutes §9:2-4(c), such as:
- Any history of a parent's unwillingness to allow reasonable parenting time
- Interaction between the child and each parent
- Domestic violence and the safety of the child
- Needs of the child
- Stability of the home environment
Most parents believe they're acting in their child's best interests, but the other parent may disagree. In these cases, a judge has to decide whether a change in custody is best for the child. A parent must be prepared to present arguments and evidence to show that their position is best for the child.
The family law attorneys at Villani & DeLuca understand how important your children are, and they're ready to help you fight for your children's best interests. Growing children and new life circumstances can mean that the court needs to change the child custody orders in your case. Contact a qualified child custody lawyer now to ensure that the court's child custody orders continue to serve the needs of your children.