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State Supreme Court changes custody relocation standard

New Jersey divorce issues, such as child custody, are not necessarily resolved with the decree or settlement. These issues sometimes resurface after the end of the marriage. The state Supreme Court addressed one of these issues and reversed its legal standard for ruling on contested parental relocation that it issued back in 2001.

In the 16-year-old case, the court approved an application for permanent relocation by reviewing the parent's changed circumstances, whether the relocation would harm the child and whether the parent can establish legal cause for the relocation. Relocation was permitted even if it reduced visitation for the objecting parent. Relocation would be denied if it had the negative effect of harming the noncustodial parent's relationship with the child.

This ruling was based on social science research, which was later criticized, that determined that the custodial parent's best interests were the same as the child's. This trend was also followed by family courts in other states. Because of this lower standard, however, many noncustodial parents had to deal with the inconvenience of their children's relocation even though they executed property settlements that prohibited these moves.

In its recent decision this summer, the court reinstated a higher standard for relocation. It ruled that relocation had to serve the best interests of all parents who share legal custody. Most states now follow this standard.

This appeal concerned a couple who entered a settlement agreement in 2014 where the wife had primary physical custody of their 7-year-old twins. The parents had joint legal custody and the father was the alternate resident parent.

They also agreed that they could not relocate outside of New Jersey without the other parent's written consent. One month after their divorce, however, the mother asked her former husband's permission to move to Utah to remarry. The father objected.

The court returned this case to the family court for a hearing where the mother must prove that her circumstances have changed such that the relocation is justified. The court does not have to review whether the parents entered their agreement in good faith.

The best interest of the child is also the primary consideration for child custody, visitation and support issues. An attorney can help parents seek court orders that are in their children's best interest.

Source: New Jersey Law Journal, "Justices Correctly Restored Standard in Relocation Cases," Aug. 28, 2012

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