Custody disputes are often the most emotional part of any divorce litigation. Determining what the physical and legal custodial arrangement will be is a fact-specific analysis that puts at the forefront the best interests of the child. While both parents start out with a presumpton of equal rights in a custody proceeding, fostering a child’s relationship with both parents is of utmost importance, as is encouraging both parents’ involvement in raising the child.
N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c) provides for several factors that a trial court must consider in determining whether to award joint custody, sole custody or an alternative that works in the child’s best interests. These factors include, but are not limited to, the parents’ ability to agree, communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the child; the parents’ willingness to accept custody; and the needs of the child. The Appellate Division recently addressed these factors in the context of a physical and legal custodial dispute in Elliott v. Prisock-Elliott, decided June 2, 2009.
For a joint physical and legal custodial arrangement, the New Jersey Supreme Court has held that the children must recognize both parents as sources of "security and love," with a desire to continue both relationships; both parents must be fit and willing to accept custody; and the parents must demonstrate a "potential" for cooperation analyzed outside of the divorce context. A parent involved in such a dispute should understand, though, that he or she need not have been as involved as the other parent in the child rearing process for joint custody to be appropriate.