Early in case where children are involved, we discuss the different types of custody.  There is residential custody – i.e. who the children live with and the resulting parenting time for the other parent. Then there is legal custody which is decision making regarding issues of the health, education, religion and general welfare of the kids.  in 99% of the cases, the parties will share joint legal custody – it is usually a no brainer.  in fact, In the New Jersey Supreme Court’s seminal decision of Beck v. Beck, 86 N.J. 480, 497-501 (1981), the Court stated as follows with regard to whether joint custody should be awarded:

At a minimum both parents must be ‘fit’ that is, physically and psychologically capable of fulfilling the role of parent.

That said, the minimum requirement of joint legal custody is the ability to communicate and cooperate on some basic level as it relates to the best interests of the children.  The Court in Beck further noted:

The judge must look for the parents’ ability to cooperate and if the potential exists, encourage its activation by instructing the parents on what is expected of them. . . [W]hen the actions of [an uncooperative] parent deprive the child of the kind of relationship with the other parent that is deemed to be in the child’s best interests, removing the child from the custody of the uncooperative parent may well be appropriate as a remedy of last resort.

Again, in Beck, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has written:

The most troublesome aspect of a joint custody decree is the additional requirement that the parents exhibit the potential for cooperation in matters of child rearing. This feature does not translate into a requirement that the parents have an amicable relationship. Although such a positive relationship is preferable, a successful joint custody arrangement requires only that the parents be able to exclude their personal conflicts from their roles as parents and that the children be spared whatever resentments and rancor the parents may harbor. Beck v. Beck, 480, 498 (1981).


Last week we blogged about a recent unreported Appellate Division case where I was the attorney for the winning party at trial and on appeal.  To view the prior post, click here – to view the Appellate Division opinion, click here.  In last week’s post, I blogged about the importance of credibility.  There were other interesting parts of the decision.

In this case, the parties agreed that they would have joint legal custody but that the wife would have the children about 60% of the overnights.  The husband, however, in what we deemed a game of semantics, would not agree that the wife was the Parent of Primary Residence (PPR), though by definition, since she had the children more than 50% of the time, she was the PPR.  There is case law that says that the PPR has final say if parents deadlock on major decisions for the children.  Despite this being the law, this was an unresolved issue at trial.  The trial court essentially acknowledged the law.  The husband appealed claiming that the custody agreement was modified.

The Appellate Division held:

Defendant initially argues that the trial court erred in "setting aside material portions of the Consent Judgment to elevate plaintiff’s decision-making authority" respecting the parties’ two children. We disagree.
This was a bitterly contested divorce as evidenced by the extent of the record and the expense of the litigation. The court recognized that the parties "dispute[d] how to make decisions related to their children" and "recognized the parent of primary residence to be the parent in the better position to make those decisions." The court held that as "primary caretaker," plaintiff "shall decide in the best interest of the children their medical needs and treatment, schooling, expenses, and even religious instruction" because it was not in the children’s interest to "be in the middle of parental conflict" when decisions concerning their welfare needed to be made. The court left intact the parties’ agreement to "confer on all important matters concerning the children’s health, education and general well being" and to use a mediator to resolve disputes that might arise concerning the children. The court concluded that "[t]he parties shall be bound by the terms of their consent judgment fixing custody and parenting time subject to the plaintiff’s authority as parent of primary residence." With respect to extraordinary medical treatment, the parties were to consult each other in advance, except in cases of emergency, and "[n]either party shall unreasonably withhold consent."

We agree that the trial court’s modification of the parties’ consent judgment is in the children’s best interest, considering the hostility between the parties. Kinsella v. Kinsella, 150 N.J. 276, 317 (1997). Should the parties come to a resolution of their hostilities and be able to deal reasonably with each other regarding the children, they may seek to amend the judgment in respect of the custody provisions pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23. In the meantime, irrespective of the parties’ agreement, the court properly exercised its "supervisory jurisdiction as parens patriae," in the children’s best interests. Sheehan v. Sheehan, 38 N.J. Super. 120, 125 (App. Div. 1955).


To the extent that parenting agreements are unclear, or there is a dispute as to what joint legal custody means, this case provides some guidance.

In this day and age, marriages involving people of different religious in no longer uncommon.  In some of these families, the parties choose one religion to raise the children in.  Sometimes even, one parent converts to the other’s religion.  In other cases, the parties and the children observe both religions.

The question is what happens when the parties divorce?  What happens if one parent converts to another religion post-divorce and wants the children to similarly convert.  Though it seems as though this would be a complicated issue, in reality, the answer to the question is relatively easy. 

Specifically, under NJ law, the primary caretaker has the right to determine the religious upbringing of the children in their custody and courts will not interfere in that parent’s decision regarding religious training for the children.  The policy behind this judicial reluctance to interfere with the religious training of children is that it is in the best interests of the children that the custodial parent be allowed to determine their religious upbringing. 

This principle was confirmed by the Appellate Division in a case where the parties were Protestant and raising the children in that religion before the divorce.  After the divorce, the mother converted herself and the children to Orthodox Judaism.  The mother, however, was not allowed to use the religion to interfere with the father’s time with the children.  Moreover, the father could expose the children to his religion when they were with him but was not allowed to educate them in his religion.

Simply put, the custodial parent can determine the children’s religion – the non-custodial parent can expose, but not formally educate the children in that parent’s religion. 

The Court’s have been clear that this has nothing to do with the preference of one religion over another. Rather, it is consistent with the law in general that gives custodial parents final say in decisions regarding children, even where there is joint legal custody, because that parent is presumed to know more about and be more in tune with what is in the children’s best interests.  This principle has been applied to disputes ranging from religion to those involving elective medical procedures such as a nose job. 

While this issue does not come before the Court all that often, as noted above, the law is well settled in this area and pretty straight forward.

A lot of times clients come in saying that they want full or sole custody of the children.  This inevitably leads to a discussion regarding the distinctions between legal and residential custody.

Legal custody is essentially involves decisions regarding children’s health, education, religion and general welfare.  With sole legal custody, one parent can make all of the decisions regarding these matters, though they have to consult the other parent in most cases.  With joint legal custody, the parents must consult and attempt to agree. 

Residential custody is where the child lives.  Some catch phrases often used are Parent of Primary Residence (or PPR) and Parent of Alternate Residence (or PAR).  Surprisingly enough, the official definitions for these terms come from the Child Support Guidelines.  Simply put, the PPR is the parent with whom the children reside more than 50% of the time. 

Now, with regard to the question as to whether it is worth fighting about the issue of sole vs. joint legal custody.  In practice, I have found that even in all but the worst of situations, must custody experts recommend and most judges order joint legal custody.  This is even though there is case law that says that joint legal custody may not be appropriate if the parties evidence no ability to communicate.  Of course, if it is the custodial parent that wont cooperate, it seems unfair to reward that parent with sole custody. 

In addition, there is a presumption in the case law that the custodial parent gets the final say in the event of a deadlock between the parents, even when there is joint legal custody.  This has come up time and again in reported decisions, including in cases regarding religious upbringing and of all things, a nose job. 

So, if the experts and courts are usually going to recommend joint legal custody, a litigant must investigate whether it is really worth it to fight for sole custody  Similarly, if the PPR has the legal presumption anyway, one must really consider whether it is worth the fight. 

This is not to say that it is not worth fighting about custody.  The real fight in most cases, if there is a bona fide dispute,  is and should be who is the PPR and how much parenting time the other parent enjoys.