A request for a child custody hearing always begins with a complaint filed with the court. A judge can’t make decisions until a parent opens a lawsuit and lets the court know that there is a dispute. However, the process between filing a complaint and a court hearing may involve many steps in New Jersey. If you live in Hoboken, you must begin a custody case at the Hudson County Superior Court, located in Jersey City.
New Jersey separates its custody cases into two separate dockets or categories: FD and FM. An FD complaint addresses custody issues between parents who are not married to each other, or those who want to address custody issues without filing for divorce. If you file an FD complaint for custody, the court will schedule you and your child’s other parent for a meeting with a court officer, usually within about six weeks. The court officer is not a judge and he can’t make rulings or issue orders. He can only hear your testimony and make suggestions for a custody order. You don't have to accept or abide by these suggestions. If you don’t like them, you have the right to ask the court officer for a hearing in front of a judge.
If you’re married to your child’s other parent and you also want a divorce, New Jersey incorporates custody issues into your divorce lawsuit. In this case, you would file an FM complaint for divorce and include your request for custody in your complaint.
In New Jersey, parents involved in custody disputes must attend mediation before the court will conduct a hearing. If you filed an FD complaint and requested a hearing with a judge, or if you filed an FM complaint for divorce, you’ll receive a notice from the court requiring you and your child’s other parent to attend Hudson County's Parents’ Education Program. The facts of your particular case won’t be at issue; the program is educational only. Several other parents who are involved in their own custody disputes will attend the program with you. After you complete PEP, the court will schedule you and your child’s other parent for mediation. A trained mediator will try to help you reach a custody agreement. If you can’t reach an agreement, the mediator will inform the court.
Proposed Parenting Plans
If you do not reach a custody agreement at mediation, the court will schedule your case for a hearing before a judge. However, you and your child’s other parent must submit a Custody and Parenting Time/Visitation Plan to the court before the hearing. This document explains in detail the custody arrangement you’re requesting and why you think it’s in the best interest of your child. Forms for the plan are available through the clerk at the courthouse in Jersey City.
After you and your child’s other parent submit your parenting plans, you’ll attend your custody hearing. The judge may or may not make a decision regarding custody at this hearing. If your initial complaint made allegations of abuse or another issue that would make your child’s other parent unfit, the judge will probably order an investigation before he rules. The Hudson County Probation Department will assign an investigator to review you, your child’s other parent and your respective homes. This may take several months. When the investigation is complete, the investigator will submit a report to the court. The court will schedule you for another hearing, when the judge will make a decision based on the investigator’s report and your testimony, as well as that of your child’s other parent.