New Jersey Appeals Court Reverses Sole Custody Award Due to Parents’ Agreement

An appeals court recently issued a decision in a New Jersey custody case concerning the appeal of a sole custody award to a mother, despite the parents’ agreement to the contrary. According to the court’s opinion, the parties were married for 11 years and had one child together who was 11 years old at the time of the trial. The husband filed for divorce and sought joint legal custody of the child and to be designated the parent of primary residence.

The parties attended mediation and prepared a custody agreement through mediation in which the wife was designated the parent of primary residence. The wife then filed a domestic violence complaint against the husband, and a judge found the husband had harassed the wife. The court later held a divorce trial, which focused on economic issues in the divorce and had little to do with custody. The wife advocated for primary residential custody and joint legal custody and the husband stated that he was fine with the shared custody agreement, though he would have liked full custody. Despite the parties’ agreement, the court awarded sole legal and physical custody to the wife, based in part on the domestic violence proceeding, a claim by the wife that the husband had improper conversations with the child, and the husband’s long work hours. The husband appealed the decision, arguing the award of sole legal custody was an abuse of discretion because it was contrary to the parties’ positions at trial and uncontested.

New Jersey Policy on Physical and Legal Custody

Under N.J.S.A. 9:2-4, New Jersey has a stated policy of allowing children to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents. The statute explicitly states 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.” The law further states that a court will respect custody arrangements agreed upon by the parents unless it is not in the best interests of the child. Physical custody refers to where the child physically resides. Legal custody refers to the authority to make major decisions in the child’s life and is often shared by both parents. Based on the state’s policy, courts often favor custody arrangements that provide for joint legal custody and joint physical custody.

The Court’s Decision

The appeals court found that the judge’s decision was not supported by the record. In this case, the parties had agreed to joint legal custody and the judge’s decision to reject the parties’ agreement was not supported by the evidence. The court found that the judge should have interviewed the child to determine the child’s preference and to assess the wife’s claim that the husband had improper conversations with the child. The court also found that the judge should have reviewed the domestic violence proceeding to see how it was applicable in the custody matter. Finally, the judge erred in considering the husband’s long work hours in declining to award him legal custody. Therefore, the court reversed the award of sole legal custody and remanded the case.

Contact a New Jersey Divorce Lawyer Today

If you anticipate filing for divorce, or your spouse has already filed, give divorce lawyer Jeffrey Brown a call.  Mr. Brown is a seasoned New Jersey family law attorney with extensive experience handling even the most complex divorce cases. To learn more, and to schedule a consultation please call 732-613-0066.

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