Best Interests Evaluation

Child Custody Attorney Serving Bergen County and Surrounding Areas

Child custody is often the most challenging matter to deal with in a divorce. However much the spouses may want to be apart from each other, they are not necessarily eager to be apart from their children for any length of time. Consequently, custody can be a very contentious issue in an otherwise simple divorce. When parents cannot agree on how to make custody arrangements between them, courts must step in and decide custody issues under a legal standard called the “best interests of the child.” If you need legal advice, assistance, or representation in understanding how the “best interests of the child” standard might be applied in your particular case, contact Bergen County child custody lawyer Brian D. Iton. Mr. Iton assists residents of Northern New Jersey in all areas of family law, including child custody and best interests evaluations.

How is the “Best Interests of the Child” Standard Applied in New Jersey?

An evaluation of a child’s best interests is relevant to nearly all legal issue regarding children, including custody, visitation, guardianship, and adoption. Although there is no precise meaning of this phrase, New Jersey courts will look at specific enumerated factors in making family law decisions involving children, particularly when it comes to custody decisions.

In general, while parents are allowed the freedom to negotiate a parenting plan that allocates how they wish to bear parental responsibilities for their children, if the parents cannot agree the court will make the decision for them. If the court has to make the decision it will create a plan that it feels places the best interests of the child above all other interests, including the personal preferences of either parent. The main factors that the court reviews can be placed into four broad categories:

  • The physical health and safety of the child, i.e., whether there has been any history of physical or emotional abuse of the child; whether a parent has a substance abuse problem or mental health issues; and whether the parents can provide the child stability in their home environment;

  • The emotional needs of the child, such as the child’s history regarding the amount of time and number of activities spent with each parent, and the preference of the child, depending upon their age, needs, and judgment;

  • The ability of the parents to cooperate and communicate in matters respecting the child, including either parent’s willingness to allow the child to spend time with the other parent; and

  • Practical considerations, such as the geographical proximity of the parents’ homes to each other, the parents’ work schedules, and the child’s educational or activity schedule.

Unless there is evidence to the contrary, the court will also assume that the best interests of the child will necessitate spending time with both parents and keeping siblings together.

The Best Interests Evaluation

Since parents may have widely varying notions of what is in the best interests of their child, experts designated as custody evaluators are often hired by a parent or appointed by the court to make an assessment of the best interests of a particular child or children. These individuals are professionals, usually with extensive education and training in behavioral sciences, who specialize in making custody evaluations.

In order to perform an evaluation, evaluators are given extensive access to the children, their parents, their homes (if necessary), and involved third parties, such as relatives, teachers, and coaches. Assessments are thorough and can take several months. When an assessment is complete, the evaluator must submit a detailed report, either to the court or their client, based on specific findings, outlining their recommendations regarding custody and visitation arrangements. The evaluator may also make recommendations regarding special measures that should be taken, such as a recommendation for therapy. Custody reports must be impartial, regardless of who paid for the evaluation, and custody evaluators are subject to cross-examination regarding their findings. It should be noted that despite their expertise, it is not uncommon for different evaluators to make differing recommendations in the same case. The evaluator’s recommendations are not the final decision on custody and parenting time, unless the parents agree to abide by the decision in advance. Family court judges retain discretion to disregard the evaluator’s recommendations if in their view the recommendations are not warranted.

Contact a Bergen County Lawyer for a Child Custody Matter

The divorce process is rarely easy if there are children involved, and the parents cannot agree on custody and parenting time. If you need a Bergen County child custody attorney to help you understand the process for a best interests evaluation, contact divorce attorney Brian D. Iton. You can call our office at (201) 731-3086 or toll-free at (844) 431-3380, or you can use our online contact form to set up a free consultation. Brian D. Iton represents people throughout Bergen, Essex, Hudson, and Passaic Counties, including in Hackensack, Paterson, Newark, and Jersey City.