Joint Custody and Sole Custody: Exactly What Does That Mean in New Jersey Family Law Matters?
I frequently receive inquiries from potential clients who say that they now have “joint” custody of their children with the other parent and, for one reason or the other, want to get “full” or “sole” custody.
The first thing I do is to explain to them that joint child custody is comprised of two elements — legal custody and physical custody.
Joint Legal Custody
In New Jersey, joint legal custody is the most frequent custodial arrangement when parents divorce or separate. Under a joint legal custody arrangement, one parent serves as the child’s “primary caretaker” and the other parent serves as the child’s “secondary caretaker.” (Many lawyers use the term “parent of primary residence” or “PPR,” and “parent of alternate residence” or “PAR”. However, those terms actually relate to child support, not custody).
Joint legal custody means the authority and responsibility for making “major” decisions regarding the child’s welfare (including among other things medical choices and education). Joint legal custody provides rights and responsibilities to primary caretakers, but it also confers rights with less significant responsibilities to secondary caretakers.
Joint Physical Custody
When parents have joint physical custody, they share primary caretaking responsibilities for the child, usually through a shared residential arrangement in which the child lives at each parent’s home for significant amounts of time on a rotating basis.
Joint physical custody arrangements are much rarer than joint legal custody arrangements, because they require divorced or separated parents to live close to one another and to be able to cooperate fully in the daily parenting of the child. Otherwise, there will be a need for applications to the court, sometimes on an emergent basis, whenever the parents cannot agree.
Once I establish whether the parents have joint legal custody or joint physical custody, I address the request for “full” or “sole” custody.
In New Jersey, when one parent has sole custody, that parent is entitled all decisions–both the major decisions and the minor day to day decisions relating to the child–without having to obtain the input or consent of the other parent.
New Jersey courts now award sole custody to one parent only in exceptional cases.
The reason is that in the New Jersey child custody statute (N.J.S.A. 9: 2-4), the New Jersey Legislature makes an express finding and declaration that “it is in the public policy of this State to assure minor children of frequent and continuing contact with both parents after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage and that it is in the public interest to encourage parents to share the rights and responsibilities of child rearing in order to effect this policy. In any proceeding involving the custody of a minor child, the rights of both parents shall be equal.”
One of the factors in the New Jersey child custody statute is each parent’s fitness. However, the statute states: “A parent shall not be deemed unfit unless the parents’ conduct has a substantial adverse effect on the child.”
Salvaggio Law Group LLC devotes its entire practice to New Jersey Divorce and Family Law matters, including New Jersey child custody and parenting time cases. If you want to talk, please call us at (973) 455-1220 or fill out the Contact Form on our website.