The New Jersey Appellate Division, in an unpublished opinion decided on June 9, 2010 in the case of Fischer v. Fischer (A-0345-09T2), reaffirmed the general rule that unless a party to a post-judgment custody case can demonstrate a prima facie case of changed circumstances, then the Court need not hold a plenary hearing. The Court also noted that in custody matters, the decisions of family court judges will be given special deference given their special expertise in this area of law.
As a practical matter, the need for a plenary hearing in a particular custody case will often turn on the unique facts of that case, as well as the judge hearing it. What constitutes a “change of circumstances” is a subjective matter that might be decided differently from judge to judge. For example, in the reported case of Mackowski v. Mackowski, 317 N.J.Super 8 (App. Div 1998), the Appellate Division reversed the trial judge because a plenary hearing was not held in a case where, from the point of view of the Appellate Division, there did seem to be “genuine and substantial” issues regarding custody.
There are no shortage of arguments a party may try to muster to demonstrate a change in circumstances. A party may seek to argue that a child who once did well in school is now doing poorly, or that the child is now having behavioral problems that did not exist before. Sometimes, the relocation of the custodial parent, even within the State of New Jersey, might be deemed a change significant enough to warrant a hearing on custody. A litigant might attempt to argue that an ex-spouse’s remarriage has had a negative effect on the children. I have seen it persuasively and compellingly argued that the custodial parent is simply not up to the task of caring for the children. Courts are most willing to entertain plenary hearings when the best interests of the child are in question, or, put another way, where it seems that the custodial parent is not adequately protecting the child’s welfare.
Given the emotional costs as well as the financial costs, including legal and other expert fees, many litigants would prefer to avoid a plenary hearing if possible. Most custody cases, pre as well as post judgment, are usually settled by way of agreement between the parties, sometimes with the assistance of an expert’s report, such as a report from a psychologist or Guardian ad Litem.