Without question, the single most pressing issue for any divorcing couple with children is who will get custody. As with most legal issues relating to the dissolution of marriage, however, there is no definitive answer to this question given the differing circumstances of every family.
Furthermore, the notion of one spouse "getting custody" is a bit simplistic, as there are actually two very distinct components to child custody: physical custody and legal custody.
As you might surmise, physical custody refers to the where the child will reside, with the parent with whom the child will live for the majority of the time known as the custodial parent, and the other parent, likely granted visitation rights, known as the non-custodial parent.
As for legal custody, this refers to the ability to make decisions relating to the health, safety and wellbeing of the child. This can include choices about medical care, education and even religion.
It's important to understand that custody is not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition, meaning courts in New Jersey can grant a combination of the following:
- Primary physical custody: The child resides primarily with one parent while the other is typically granted visitation rights.
- Joint physical custody: The child resides with each parent for roughly equal periods of time, such that each bears responsibility for everyday concerns.
- Sole legal custody: One parent is vested with the authority to make decisions on behalf of the child, and has access to their medical and education records.
- Joint legal custody: Both parents have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the child, and have equal access to their medical and education records.
While there is some movement toward awarding joint physical and joint legal custody, the most common arrangement remains one parent having primary physical custody, and both parents having legal custody.
The court can grant sole custody, meaning one parent has both legal and physical custody, but this is typically reserved for those scenarios in which one parent is determined to be absent, missing or otherwise "unfit."
If you have questions about child custody or would like to learn more about a divorce-related issue, consider speaking with a skilled legal professional.