Child Support and Custody: What Are the NJ Rules of the Road?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

If you are a parent, child custody and support should be important to you. If you are married to the other parent and things are going well, you share custody and whoever is earning money is supporting the child. When parents are separated, divorced, or never married, the situation is more complicated.

Child support refers to money being used to provide for the needs of the child. This is an amount that’s normally the result of calculations based on state guidelines. Only under unusual situations will that amount be changed.

Child custody comes in different types and is not nearly as straightforward. Normally custody is shared by the parents but there are no formulas like child support. A judge will decide who gets what type of custody based on the best interests of the child. If the parents can’t agree to a parenting plan a judge can create one for them.

Child support

Parents pay child support because they have a legal duty to financially support their children whether or not the parents are married, divorced or separated. This obligation under New Jersey law continues until the children are either emancipated or until a court orders otherwise. Emancipation is presumed by age 18, unless the facts show otherwise (the child is continuing his or her education or has a disability).

To apply for child support, you can contact a local child support county office near you or fill out an application which is available online or from your county’s Board of Social Services, Welfare Office or Family Court.

The obligation to pay support exists no matter the custody status of the child. If a parent stops paying child support, or decides on his or her own to pay less, the parent may be required to pay past due child support. Disputes between the parents, including custody or visitation disagreements, are not a valid basis to change support payments.

If one parent would like to stop paying child support or pay a lower amount and there is a court order in place, that parent needs to file a petition with the court to terminate or modify that obligation. Once that order is signed, both parents are obligated to support their child/children based upon their income, ability to earn income and their assets.

Child support for middle income families is determined by the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines. If the parents’ combined after-tax income is greater than $187,200 (as of 2007), the family court decides what additional child support is due based on ten factors that bear on fairness.

The New Jersey Child Support Guidelines are used as a rebuttable presumption to establish and modify child support. Under these guidelines the following is considered,

  • Each parent’s income,
  • The number of overnight visits the child spends with each parent,
  • Whether a parent is paying or receiving alimony,
  • Whether a parent has a child from another relationship,
  • Work related child care costs,
  • The premium for the child’s health insurance, and
  • Any other cost that may be appropriate to include in the calculation.

Another online form is available to estimate your child support payments.

A court may deviate from the guidelines for “good cause” to accommodate the child’s needs or the parents’ circumstances. If a judge decides the guidelines are not applicable, the court must consider a number of factors.

Child Custody

New Jersey child custody comes in two different types,

  • Physical: With whom the child will live or spend time with, and
  • Legal: Who makes important decisions as to how the child will be raised and cared for.

Parents can be awarded joint physical custody (when the child lives similar times with both parents) or physical custody can be primary (the child spends most of the time with one parent) or secondary (the child lives the rest of the time with a parent). If a parent is not awarded any type of custody it’s normally because the situation is severe (the person is seen as not capable of living with the child for any extended period of time) but that parent should have a right to visit with the child (visitation rights).

Legal custody can be shared by both parents (joint custody) or one parent can have sole legal custody.

  • If there is joint legal custody both parents need to work out the important decisions in a child’s life (education, healthcare, religious upbringing).
  • If there is joint legal custody and one parent has primary physical custody, the parent caring for the child most of the time makes the day to day, practical decisions but must work with the other parent when tackling bigger issues.
  • If one parent has sole legal custody, the other parent may be considered an unfit parent, not capable of making important decisions for the child.

The parents can agree what type of custody each other gets, with the approval of a judge, based on what’s the best interests of the child. Coming to an agreement and avoiding a protracted legal and emotional fight over custody is probably in everyone’s interest, unless one of the parents is genuinely unfit.

If there is no agreement the judge will make the decision for them. Each case is unique but the judge makes the same assumption initially: that the child will benefit from maintaining frequent, ongoing contact with both parents who share the rights and responsibilities of raising the child.

A judge will consider,

  • Physical health and safety: This should be the judge’s primary concern. This includes trying to make sure a child will not be subjected to physical or psychological abuse. A history of domestic violence would be considered when a decision is made.
  • Emotional needs: A judge will want a stable environment for the child and consider how well the parent interacts with the child as well as how involved the parent has been in the child’s life. A judge will consider keeping siblings together to help them emotionally.
  • Co-parenting and communication skills: The more open a parent is to sharing custody the more positive the judge should be (unless the other parent is unfit). One parent trying to drag down the other with false accusations or using children as pawns may find that strategy has backfired, ending up with the short end of the custody stick. The more civilized and cooperative the parents the better.
  • Practical considerations: This includes the distance between parents, location of schools, a parent’s work responsibilities, ages and number of children.

If you have any questions about child custody or support or feel you need legal representation in order to protect your rights and the rights of your children, contact our office today by calling 609-683-7400 or by filling out our online form to arrange an initial consultation.  We will listen to your facts, advise you on the law, and recommend a pathway to social and economic justice that is just right for you.