Preparing for a Child Custody Hearing
Ending a New Jersey marriage can be an emotionally and financially challenging process in many ways. For many parents, child custody is the most important issue addressed during the divorce. By working with a New Jersey family law attorney, you can prepare for your child custody hearing in order to put your best arguments forward and present a compelling case.
Getting Ready for Family Court
A child custody hearing can be intimidating for parents, especially if you have never gone through the process. Most parents want to preserve as much time with their children as possible. In many cases, they may have serious concerns about the other parent’s safety or fitness. By preparing in advance for your hearing, you can work with your family lawyer to present your case effectively to achieve your desired outcomes.
A child custody hearing can be particularly important for your future and that of your children. You and your divorce attorney can work together to prepare your testimony, secure necessary witnesses, prepare evidence and submit all of the required paperwork in advance of the hearing. It is not enough to simply feel strongly about your child custody case; instead, you should be familiar with the arguments that your divorce lawyer will make in order to ensure you have full agreement without surprises in the courtroom.
Your family law attorney will submit evidence to the court in advance, so securing all relevant documents concerning your financial status, any incidents involving the children, your relationship with teachers or daycare providers, and other key factual items in advance is important. In a child custody hearing, you will go through a legal process in which the judge and the other parent have a right to access this information through the discovery period. Your divorce lawyer should be as prepared as possible with all relevant documents in order to make the most effective argument on your behalf.
Securing Witnesses for a Custody Hearing
Both parents will often testify during a custody hearing, with the parent who brought the action going first. In a divorce case, child custody matters will generally be heard as part of the overall trial. While the testimony of parents is often the most important, in addition to documentary evidence, it may also be important to secure witnesses for the hearing. For example, custody evaluators, guardians at litem or mental health professionals who have examined the children may provide testimony to the judge about what outcome would serve the best interests of the child. New Jersey family law judges prioritize the best interests of the child when making determinations about how to award or share child custody. These expert witnesses may use their expertise to make recommendations on that basis.
You may also have lay witnesses at a child custody hearing, such as relatives, teachers, nannies or day care providers. Unlike licensed professionals with recognized standards for evaluation, they cannot provide expert testimony. Instead, they can speak from their own observations or experiences about what they have witnessed personally.
In some cases, and especially with older children, the child may be asked about their preferences by the family court judge. While these preferences are not determinative, they may be considered by the court.
Family Court Priorities When Making Custody Decisions
Family court judges are required to prioritize the best interests of the child when making custody decisions. In general, New Jersey courts recognize the importance of the involvement of both parents in a child’s life and there is a preference for joint legal custody. Even in situations of severe concern, one parent may be granted some time with the child, although this may include supervised parenting time or other alternatives to joint custody. Your divorce lawyer may make specific recommendations about your case.
Legal and physical custody are considered separately under New Jersey law. Legal custody involves the right to make decisions about fundamental matters related to a child’s upbringing: for example, about health care, religion and education. Physical custody refers to where the child lives most of the time. Parents may share joint legal and physical custody. In cases where the child lives mostly with one parent and has parenting time with the other, both parents may still share joint legal custody, and are required to agree together about those important issues. You and the other parent may work with your respective family lawyers to negotiate an agreement.
There are a number of factors that judges will consider when determining how to award physical custody. While financial status may be a factor, it should typically not be used to determine custody absent a finding that that parent is also better prepared psychologically to care for the child or that the other parent is unable to provide sufficiently for the child’s needs. When preparing for your child custody hearing, gather your financial documents in order to show that you can provide for your child’s daily needs and ongoing expenses.
Judges will also consider the relationship between the parents. In many cases, they will encourage the parents to reach an agreement between themselves that it can recognize. When parents are able to work with each other for an amicable settlement, this is viewed positively, especially when parents expect to share joint legal and physical custody. If the parents are unable to manage their disputes, judges may be concerned about how the children will be affected by ongoing disputes and disagreements about custody. They will also be very concerned about attempts by one parent to prevent the other parent from exercising their custody rights, developing a bond with the child or nurturing their relationship.
Of course, there may be intervening factors, such as abuse, that justify parental objections to the other parent spending time with the child, but it is important to document these matters in order to discuss them effectively during a custody hearing.
The family judge may also inquire as to the current custody situation and any already existing custody orders or informal arrangements. Absent an injustice being done to any party, courts will often seek to minimize disruption to the child’s life. They may provide a basis for change and discussion about the future of child custody for that family.
Timing of a Child Custody Hearing
A child custody hearing may take only one day, or it may be spread out over a period of time, with trial dates often scheduled weeks or months apart. If you are going through a trial, you should prepare to take the necessary time off from work when needed. Of course, this can vary greatly depending on the complexity of the issues raised in the case and the level of conflict between the parents. If the court is asked to make findings of fact based on evidence or strip one parent of their rights, these are issues that are likely to require more substantial evidence and argument than parents simply seeking to share custody with one another and have a parenting plan adopted by the court.
When you go to court for a child custody hearing, plan in advance with your divorce attorney about the logistics of the hearing. Make sure to arrive to court on time and to be dressed appropriately. It is important to maintain a sense of decorum and to pay close attention to the proceedings throughout the hearing. Your presence in the courtroom will make an impression on the judge about how seriously you take this child custody matter, so keep that in mind in terms of your dress, presentation and behavior.
Speak With a New Jersey Custody Lawyer
Your divorce attorney can advise you about how to prepare for your child custody hearing and work together on a common strategy. Contact the experienced New Jersey family law attorneys at Lawrence Law by calling 908-645-1000 or going to our website for a consultation about your child custody matter at our Watchung or Red Bank, New Jersey, office.