When a married couple has a child, New Jersey law assumes that the male spouse is the biological father of that child. However, when a child is born to an unmarried couple, paternity must be established. If an unmarried couple decides to split, custody cannot be considered for the father until paternity has been established. Once that occurs, both parents have legal rights when it comes to child custody and support.
(To learn more about establishing paternity in New Jersey, read our previous post on The Process of Establishing Paternity in New Jersey.)
The process for deciding custody, support, and parenting time issues is similar to divorce. One party begins the process by filing a non-dissolution complaint with the court. The parties then proceed to a consent conference, which is similar to mediation except it is not confidential. If the couple’s issues cannot be resolved in the consent conference, then the case will proceed to court.
Just like in a divorce, the court will make custody decisions based on the best interests of the child. Under NJ law (N.J.S.A. 9:2-4), the factors used to determine the best interests of the child include:
- The parents’ ability to agree, communicate, and cooperate in matters relating to the child.
- The parents’ willingness to accept custody and any history of unwillingness to allow parenting time not based on substantiated abuse.
- The interaction and relationship of the child with his or her parents and siblings.
- Any history of domestic violence.
- The safety of the child and the safety of either parent from physical abuse by the other parent.
- The preference of the child, if of age, and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent decision.
- The needs of the child.
- The stability of the home environment offered.
- The quality and continuity of the child’s education.
- The fitness of the parents.
- The geographical proximity of the parents’ homes.
- The extent and quality of the time spent with the child prior to or subsequent to the separation.
- The parents’ employment responsibilities.
- The age(s) and number of children.
When it comes to custody rulings, New Jersey courts do not discriminate based on gender. If paternity has been established, both parents have equal rights to seek legal and/or physical custody as well as the right to seek child support.
Just as in a divorce case, the court will typically follow the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines to make child support decisions. The court will take into consideration how much money it will take to raise a child based on the child’s age and the parents’ income as well as the costs for work-related child care, health insurance for the child, and the amount of time each parent spends with the child. The court may also approve additional support beyond the Guidelines if special circumstances apply.
When you are faced with an important life decision regarding a key family relationship, the advice and assistance of an experienced family law attorney often prove crucial to your understanding of the issues involved and your satisfaction with the ultimate outcome of your family law matter. Contact us today for your free consultation.