Family structure in American has changed drastically from the traditional “nuclear family” of the 1940s. 2016 census data reveal that 69% of children under 18 lived with two parents, a big drop from 93% in 1950. This upward trend in single fathers and mothers reflects shifting American lifestyles and increased flexibility in the law.

In 2001, the federal government passed the Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) to establish rules for each state to follow when determining child custody. New Jersey adopted the law in 2004 to align their practice with national standards for determining custody and visitation.

Different types of child custody

The UCCJEA sets standards that help New Jersey courts decide how to award custody and cooperate across state lines. Two primary types of child custody exist in New Jersey:

  1. Physical custody: Physical custody refers to the physical space the child will occupy. Courts will establish physical custody with whomever the child spends most of their time.
  2. Legal custody: Courts award legal custody to the parent(s) making all long-term plans for the child including their doctor, school, and religious instruction. Both parents must agree to these decisions with joint custody.

Unmarried parents have access to both types of custody and can sue for either. When ruling, a judge weighs over several factors, focusing on the “best interests” of the child. When a court rules for “best interests,” it will prioritize a child’s happiness, security, mental health and emotional development. Courts prefer granting joint visitation but will not overlook cases of abuse or neglect when determining the safety of the child. Unmarried co-parents must voluntarily acknowledge paternity or present the results of a paternity test before a court considers a child’s father for custody arrangements.

New Jersey courts encourage co-parents to draft their parenting plans with visitation schedules and guidelines. Grandparents can sue for visitation time as well. A court may even consider the wishes of the children if they are mature enough.

Seek legal help for more information

Parents with questions about custody or visitation in New Jersey can find answers with a local attorney familiar with family law. A lawyer can asses any potential custody cases and help parents establish behaviors that may help in custody disputes.