New Jersey Law on Joint Physical Custody
By Beverly Bird
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New Jersey courts don't often order joint physical custody arrangements, but "order" is the operative word. When parents agree that this is what they want for their children, and if they incorporate a joint physical custody plan into their marital settlement agreement, judges will typically sign the agreement into a divorce judgment. The court's resistance only comes into play when one parent wants joint physical custody and the other objects. This requires a trial, and a judge will weigh several stringent factors before ordering joint physical custody over the wishes of one parent.
Shared Custody Vs. Joint Custody
New Jersey's legal jargon regarding custody can be somewhat confusing. It involves two terms that appear interchangeable, but they're actually not the same thing. "Shared" custody refers only to legal custody; both parents share in major decision-making for their children. Shared custody in New Jersey does not refer to a joint physical parenting plan in which the children divide their time between their parents' homes. "Joint" custody, on the other hand, refers to such an arrangement.
Before a New Jersey court will order joint custody, the judge must find that a variety of factors are conducive to the arrangement. The most important one is that parents must be able to get along well enough to make joint parenting possible. Although they're obviously adversaries in the divorce proceeding, they must both be psychologically capable of putting that aside and working together for the sake of their children. The fact that they're in court litigating the parenting arrangement because they don't agree on joint custody makes this unlikely. If one parent is emphatically opposed, it becomes less likely that she'll be able to achieve the level of cooperation that joint parenting requires.
Joint physical custody requires proof of adequate income as well. Both parents' homes must be suitable for the children to live in half the time. If one parent rents a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate, it's not likely a New Jersey judge will order a joint custody arrangement. The court won't put a child in a situation where he must sleep on a sofa when he's living with that parent. Ideally, both homes should be fully stocked with everything children need in their day-to-day lives. This can mean two sets of clothing, toys and other personal items, so the kids don't have to drag their possessions back and forth between homes on a regular basis.
Proximity of Homes
New Jersey courts will also look at the proximity of parents' homes. A judge may not order joint custody if one parent lives outside the school district or far from the children's friends and extracurricular activities. Like all states, New Jersey bases custody decisions on the best interests of the children, and it may not be emotionally or psychologically healthy for them to repeatedly leave their friends and activities to spend chunks of time with a parent who lives elsewhere. It may help, however, if the non-local parent is willing to do some extensive driving so the children can still maintain their lives in the other neighborhood while they're living with him.
If you can't satisfy New Jersey's criteria for joint custody, this doesn't rule out shared custody, and New Jersey judges are much more willing to order this type of arrangement. The parent the children spend most of their time with is the "parent of primary residence," or PPR. The other parent is the "parent of alternate residence," or PAR. Shared custody typically involves at least two overnights per week with the PAR. Parents share legal custody and decision-making rights, but the children spend somewhat more time in one home than in the other.
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally since 1983. She is the author of several novels including the bestselling "Comes the Rain" and "With Every Breath." Bird also has extensive experience as a paralegal, primarily in the areas of divorce and family law, bankruptcy and estate law. She covers many legal topics in her articles.