Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

In a New Jersey Divorce, What Does Joint Legal Custody Exactly Mean?

In my experience as a New Jersey Divorce Attorney dictates that less than 5% of New Jersey Child Custody cases result in sole custody.  In fact, an award of sole custody to one parent is so rare that it is a topic that is rarely even explored in much detail when I am meeting with a New Jersey divorce client.  Simply put, joint legal custody essential means that you both parents are “equal” as to major decisions regarding the children.  These include, but are not limited to, major medical decisions, religion, and education (such as the collection of college).  Each parent has equal access to the child’s medical and academic records.  When co-parenting is going smoothly, rarely do problems arise.  However, when co-parenting is not going well, even the most basic decisions become huge dilemma.  Then a New Jersey Family Lawyer must get involved to protect the children.  Let’s explore.

While awarding joint legal custody seems like a go-to for the courts in many instances where custody is contested, it does have its pitfalls as well. That is why it is so important to recognize the benefits and drawbacks to awarding joint legal custody. Although the children are guaranteed to have a relationship with both parents, what some do not realize is that the children may also become victims in cases where parents are split on basic issues. After the court decided the landmark case of Beck v. Beck, 86 N.J. 480 (1981), a slew of consequences immediately followed. As more and more joint legal custody awards were being granted, there was also an increase in the amount of disputes between divorcing parenting regarding issues like their child’s healthcare, religion, and name changes. Let’s explore.   

Healthcare

The leading case related to which parent should make medical decisions for their child is Brzozowski v. Brzozowski, 265 N.J. Super. 141 (1993). In Brzozowski, the parties had joint legal custody over their eight year old daughter. Id. However, the father was not the residential parent. While with her father, the girl was riding her bike and fell off. What did not appear to be a serious injury to the girl’s father turned out to be a fractured nose,. When the mother brought her to the doctor, the doctor recommended surgery, a tonsillectomy, and an adenoidectomy. Id at 142.

When the father found out what the doctor had said, he chose to seek medical advise from two other doctors of his choice. Both doctors, one from New Jersey and a specialist from New York, both agreed that the girl did not need the surgery. Upon hearing this, the father reported to the mother the news, yet she refused to listen and insisted that the daughter have the surgery.

Although the court looked to Beck v. Beck for guidance, it ultimately concluded that the mother should have the upper hand in the situation. The court stated that it would “afford the custodial parent with more authority to decide issues in the event of a disagreement between parents in spite of a joint legal custody arrangement. Id at 147.                 

Religion

The leading case related to which parent should decide what religion to raise their child is Feldman v. Feldman, 378 N.J. Super. 83 (App. Div. 2005). In Feldman, the parties had joint legal custody of their three children. However, the father was the residential parent upon the divorce. He was Jewish and the mother was Catholic. While the parties were married, they raised their children to be both religions. That continued even after the divorce. Yet as time passed, the mother wanted her ex to allow the oldest child to attend Sunday school at church each weekend.

Again, the court looked to Beck v. Beck. Yet, it also looked to cases decided before Beck in which joint legal custody was not the favorite. Ultimately, the court held that the father should be able to raise the children whatever religion he wanted to. “As the primary caretaker, he had the right to decide the children’s religious upbringing.” Id.          

Name Changes

The leading case related to which parent should decide if the child’s last name be changed upon a divorce is Emma v. Evans, 215 N.J. 197 (2013). Unlike the past two categories of decisions, non-custodial parents are given deference when deciding the child’s last name. In Emma, the children were given their father’s name at birth. The parents got divorced thereafter and were awarded joint legal custody, with the mother being the residential parent.

Soon after the divorce, the mother sought to change her children’s last name to incorporate her maiden name. Although other courts in the past had sided with a custodial parent when determining whether a child should have his or her name changed, the Emma court decided differently. Citing Beck, the court held that “when parents have agreed on a name at birth, the parent seeking the name change in a subsequent dispute must bear the burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that the name change is in the child’s best interest.”

While the courts today still frequently award joint legal custody, it is important to also remember that there are consequences to every decision, no matter how great it may seem. For more information on this disputed area of law, please contact my office today.