Thursday, December 06, 2012

Understanding a New Jersey court’s analysis when awarding parenting time

An award for more custody time to one parent over the other does not necessarily mean that the parent with less custody time should have less importance in the child’s life. A court may award one parent primary custody because it may be easier for the child to have one “home-base” in order to provide stability. However, if both parents demonstrate a willingness and desire to spend as much time as possible with the child, a court could find that a shared custody situation is best, even if it means back and forth for the child.

In New Jersey, when deciding custody matters for a minor child, the pivotal factor and top priority of the courts is ensuring the happiness and welfare of the child. The court’s assessment of the child’s best interest is directly related to how much time he or she will spend with the non-custodial parent. In determining custody, the court’s goal is to develop a reasonable parenting-time schedule that supports the best interests of the child, as well as protects the parent’s constitutional right to enjoy a relationship with their child.

In J.M. v. J.R., Mother appealed the trial court’s order that expanded Father’s parenting time and established a holiday schedule. She also argued that the trial judge gave no decision regarding her request to enroll their daughter in extra preschool time. J.M. v. J.R., 2012 WL 1556387.

A trial court’s decision on custody and visitation rights is rarely reversed, because the decision can only be reversed when there is an abuse of discretion by the judge. In child custody matters involving minor children, the most important factor and consideration is the happiness and welfare of the child, and judges have a significant amount of discretion when analyzing the facts, because the judges see the parties and assess their credibility first-hand.

Tied into the happiness and welfare of the children are the visitation rights for the non-custodial parent. When fashioning a custody arrangement, the goal is to create a reasonable parenting time schedule consistent with the rights of the parent and the best interests of the child. The only time that parental rights will not be enforced is if a parent’s time with the child will negatively impact the welfare of the child. 

In J.M., the appellate court did not second-guess the trial court’s decision to expand Father’s parenting time or the establishment of a holiday schedule. When analyzing the evidence regarding the best interests of the child, the appellate court found that there was ample evidence in the trial court record that Father had a great relationship with his daughter, even though his relationship with Mother was troubled. Additionally, the appellate court said that they would not reverse the trial court’s decision to impose its own holiday schedule on the parents because they could not come to an agreement on one together.

With respect to Mother’s request for their daughter to have additional preschooling, the appellate court reasoned that the trial judge denied that request because it would reduce Father’s parenting time and increase his child support costs. Furthermore, at the time of the appellate court’s opinion, there were only four months until the daughter would enter kindergarten; thus, there was no need to remand for further consideration on dad’s financial abilities.

Changes in parenting time and visitation rights can occur as the child gets older. If you have questions about your current custody arrangement be sure to contact an attorney.

Written by Allyson Lutley, law clerk to Law Offices of Linda A. Kerns, LLC.  Edited by Elizabeth A. Bokermann, Esquire, associate attorney.


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