In a New Jersey Child Custody Case, How Does A Young Child’s Age Come Into Play?

Ideally, as a New Jersey divorce and family law firm, I advise my client’s to have a liberal and reasonable parenting time schedule. Still, I understand that is does not always work, especially when two parents cannot get along for the sake of their child.  In such a circumstance, there must be a specific, court ordered parenting time schedule.  However, how does the child age affect a New Jersey family lawyer's analysis in this type of situation?  That issue presented in the recent case of Cipriani v. Fontana.

In the case, the parties met while they were college students in Philadelphia. Cipriani was from Pennsylvania and Fontana from Brick, New Jersey. In April of 2009, Fontana became pregnant. Although she was ordered to remain on bed rest for most of the pregnancy, she was able to finish school while Cipriani looked for a job in Manhattan. However, their young love did not last very long. Once the baby was born in January of 2010, the couple decided to break off their engagement. Additionally, Cipriani initially refused to sign the child’s birth certificate until a paternity test was ordered; however, he ultimately did sign.

When the baby was born, he lived with his mother in her family’s house in New Jersey. Although Fontana and Cipriani tried to reconcile and work things out, the tensions continued to grow and they were unable to get together again. Yet, Cipriani did continue to visit with his son on weekends through March 2010. He was staying at nearby hotels in New Jersey so that he did not have to see Fontana’s parents every time he saw his child.

In April of 2010, the father filed a complaint seeking sole legal and residential custody of the child. In return, the mother filed a counterclaim seeking sole legal and residential custody as well, in addition to child support. A month later in May, the court denied both of the parties’ motions and granted joint legal custody, with Fontana having primary residential custody. Cipriani was granted parenting time on alternate weekends, Thursday through Monday.

Although the court granted the parties joint legal custody, allowing them to, simply put, to be equal parents, they still seemed to constantly be fighting over last minute, day-to-day decisions. The court believed that the child would only suffer by this situation so she decided to modify the parenting schedule, and to Cipriani’s benefit. In June of 2013, the judge determined that Cipriani could exercise six weeks of summer parenting time in three blocks, of two consecutive weeks each. Additionally, the judge determined that during the next summer of 2014, Cipriani could exercise a total of six weeks of parenting time divided into two blocks, each three consecutive weeks. However, Cipriani was still not satisfied with the arrangement. He appealed to the court, arguing that the because of the quality of his relationship with his son, he should be granted more time to see him. He argued that spending more time with his son was only in his best interest since they had such a “quality relationship.”  

On appeal, the judge instantly turned to the landmark decision of Baures v. Lewis. In Baures, the court specifically addressed the idea of the quality of a parent-child relationship being influential in a custody determination. The court stated that research had “not yet confirmed any connection between the duration and frequency of visits and the quality of the relationship of the child and the noncustodial parent. Although confidence that he or she is loved and supported by both parents is crucial to the child's well-being ..., no particular parenting time configuration is necessary to foster that belief. According to scholars, so long as the child has regular communication and contact with the noncustodial parent that is extensive enough to sustain their relationship, the child's interests are served.”

Ultimately, the court held that the parenting schedule gave Cipriani sufficient contact with his son. It acknowledged that one day quality might be taken into consideration when setting parenting time; however, it was not an idea the court was willing to entertain at that point in time as the child was simply too young. The main goal of any New Jersey family court is the best interests of the child.  Here, the child’s best interests were accounted for and is ordered to have time with each parent, respectively.