What Factors Does a Judge Consider?
New Jersey requires most custody cases that do not involve violence between spouses to go to mediation if they have not reached an agreement beforehand. A judge must then make a final decision on the case or approve the parents’ negotiated settlement. To do so, the judge will consider factors that can impact the best interests of the child, including any existing reports from a custody evaluator.
The Best Interest Standard
During custody cases, judges focus on making decisions that protect the child’s needs. These needs can vary depending on the child’s age, health, interests and other factors. While you as a parent might feel that you know what is best for your children, the judge’s perception of these needs will be a determining factor.
As part of your preparation, you can work with your divorce lawyer to gather evidence to prove to the judge that protecting your child’s best interest is your top priority. As children grow, however, their needs will also change, and this affects how your children are best protected. Because of this, the child custody order might need to be modified after a specific amount of time.
Mental and Physical Health
As part of the process, the judge will need proof of each parent’s physical and mental health. Parents are responsible for their children, so the judge must ensure that the parent who is awarded primary custody is physically and emotionally able to take care of their child’s needs. A parent’s age can also be considered if it will play a role in their ability to take care of their child. The judge may ask to see a report about your health from your primary care provider as well as any specialists that you see, and they might even ask you to be evaluated by a psychiatrist if you don’t already see one.
The Physical Environment
Judges will also look at where the child will be living. Their physical environment can have a major impact on a child’s development; therefore, the parent’s home should be an organized, clean place where the child’s physical safety can be assured. Some judges will want to see proof that each child will have their own bedroom in the home and that each home will provide quality accommodations for the children, including any specialized equipment or furniture needed to support a child’s health conditions. The home is central to the child’s ability to thrive, so parents will need to prove that they can provide the right environment for their children’s upbringing.
Relationships and Wishes
Some of the factors that judges will consider center on the people in the family, including their relationships and their wishes. When considering these factors, the judge might choose to hear what the character witnesses for each side might have to say. A judge may be interested in hearing about:
- The relationship between the parents and between each parent and their child
- The child’s wishes regarding which parent they would prefer to live with if the child is old enough to make such a determination
- Each parent’s wishes regarding custody and their ability to take care of their child
The judge will also consider whether a parent has been supportive of the relationship between the child and their other parent. The judge typically wants to see parents encourage the development of this relationship. A parent’s history of attempting to prevent the development of their child’s relationship with the other parent, such as by keeping the child from seeing that parent or attempting to sabotage the relationship, can impact the outcome of the case.
You might be worried about the effect your finances might have on the outcome of the case. However, while the judge will review each parent’s finances, this factor alone does not determine the result. When considering finances, the judge will be more concerned about each parent’s ability to cover the costs of raising a child, which often go beyond providing the child with a home and can include educational tuition, sports, afterschool activities, day care and medical costs. You can work with your divorce lawyer and a financial professional to help you prepare for your case as the amount of money that you are awarded in the divorce proceedings will generally be taken into account.
The Impact of the Divorce
The parents’ divorce can affect children in many ways, and the judge will consider how much the children have been impacted by it. The judge might question whether the best interests of the child are met by keeping the existing custody agreement, particularly if the children are old enough to express their preference, or if changing the existing custody order might be better. In looking at this factor, judges will focus on the routines the children are used to and how these routines might change if they have to move away and change schools or care centers.
Domestic Violence, Neglect or Abuse
If there is a proven history of violence, neglect or abuse in the home, whether it was aimed at the other parent or toward the children, the judge will take that into account as that can represent a risk to the children’s safety. On the other hand, if there is evidence that one parent has made false accusations of abuse or neglect against the child’s other parent, this history will also be considered.
Past Arrangements and Care
Past care arrangements will also play a role in the case’s outcome. The judge will be concerned with past family dynamics to see if one parent had the majority of the responsibility for caring for the child and the impact changing this arrangement would have on the child’s life. In most cases, the judge looks to maintain consistency and stability in the child’s life. This can be a practical matter as well.
For example, a parent who often travels for work might not be able to meet their child’s needs as a custodial parent as well as a parent who works from home. The child’s age might also play a role related to this factor as young children might feel a stronger attachment to their primary caretaker.
What to Expect From the Custody Decision
Once a judge has reviewed all the factors and decided that the best interests of the child are protected, they will either issue a ruling or approve the settlement that you and your spouse have reached previously through mediation. The custody order will establish legal and physical custody of the children, which might be joint, sole or a combination of these.
Preparation for the custody hearing is very important. You will need to gather documents to provide the judge with evidence about your position as a parent. At The Offices of Kelly Berton Rocco, we can offer assistance and guidance with your process. Call us today at 201-343-0078 to schedule a consultation and visit our Hackensack office. You always want what is best for your children, so take the first step toward success today.