Child custody is one of most difficult issues in many New Jersey divorces. Many divorcing parents see the final court order granting the divorce and setting out rules for custody and visitation as the end of the struggle. Unfortunately, life often makes unexpected changes, some of which require modifying an existing order for child custody.
New Jersey judges have the power to modify any prior custody order if the party requesting modification can prove the existence of the facts that justify the requested changes.
The facts that justify modifying a custody order
If the divorced parents can agree between themselves as to how the custody order should be changed, the judge will likely approve the changes. If the parties do not agree, the party requesting the change must file a motion with the court to amend the existing order.
‘Substantial Change in Circumstances’
To convince a judge that a modification is justified, one party must show that one party or the other has experienced or will experience a “substantial change in circumstances.”
In other words, a judge won’t order a change in custody merely because the existing order causes an inconvenience to one of the parents.
As interpreted by New Jersey courts, “substantial change in circumstances” means a life-altering change, such as a new job in a different city, loss of employment, a disabling injury or similar occurrence.
Other factors to be considered
In considering a motion to amend an existing custody order, the court will consider the same factors that were considered in drafting the existing order. The overriding factor is the best interests of the child. Other factors include:
- The parents’ ability to communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the child
- The relationship of the child to each parent
- Any history of domestic violence
- If the child is old enough to exercise sound judgment, the child’s feelings may be considered
- The stability of each home environment
- The quality and continuity of the child’s education
- Whether the change, such as a new job with a higher salary or greater benefits, will benefit the child
- The court may also consider any other factor that may be relevant to making a sound decision
Anyone faced with the possibility (or necessity) of amending an existing order for child custody may wish to consult an experienced family law attorney for an evaluation of the evidence and an opinion on the likely outcome.