Where can I file for child custody? (Which state has jurisdiction)
As is explained in a law called the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), you can only file for custody in the “home state” of the child (but please also take a look at Are there exceptions to the “home state” rule?). The “home state” is the state where your child has most recently lived with a parent or a person acting as a parent for the past six consecutive months. If your child is less than six months old, then your child’s home state is the state where s/he has lived since birth. Leaving the state for a short period of time, such as going on vacation, does not change your child’s home state.
If you and your child recently moved to a new state, generally you cannot file for custody in that new state until you have lived there for at least six months. Until then, you or the other parent can start a custody action in the state where your child has most recently lived for at least six months.1 However, there are exceptions - please see Are there exceptions to the “home state” rule?
1 See N.J. Stat. § 2A:34-65
Are there any exceptions to the "home state" rule?
There are exceptions to the home state rule. You can file for temporary emergency custody in a state other than the home state if the child is present in the state and one of these things is true:
- the child has been abandoned; or
- it is necessary in an emergency to protect the child because the child (or a sibling or parent of the child) is subjected to, or threatened with, mistreatment or abuse.1
Also, in some cases, you may be able to file for custody in a state where the child and at least one parent have “significant connections.” Usually, however, you can only do this if there is no home state or if the home state has agreed to let another state have jurisdiction.2 This can be complicated, and if you think this applies to your situation, please talk to a lawyer in both states about this.
For a list of legal resources, please see our NJ Finding a Lawyer page.
1 N.J. Stat. § 2A:34-68(a)
2 N.J. Stat. § 2A:34-65
What are the steps for filing for custody?
Before filing in court for custody, you may want to consider drawing up an out-of-court agreement with the other parent. Usually parents will have to be flexible when it comes to custody and visitation for the benefit of the child. Often times, parents who fight for sole custody will litigate in court for months or even years and end up with some sort of joint custody agreement after settlement or trial. However, sometimes fighting for sole custody is necessary because you can’t agree with the other parent, the other parent is not allowing contact, or your fear for your child’s well-being. Especially with domestic violence, many abusers will try to keep power and control over the victim-survivor through the child, so joint custody isn’t recommended due to the power difference in the relationship.
If you decide to file in court for custody, although custody laws vary by state, the process usually looks similar to this
1. File for custody. Depending on the state, you may file in the family court or a court of a different name that hears custody cases. Generally, you will file in the county where the child lives and, depending on the circumstances, you may be able to request an emergency or temporary order as part of your petition. The exact petition you file may depend on whether you are married or not:
- If you are a married parent who is also filing for divorce, you can usually include the custody petition within the divorce process.
- If you are a married parent who is not filing for divorce, you can file for custody on its own.
- If you are an unmarried parent, you can also seek custody in court. However, if paternity hasn’t been established, which means that the father hasn’t been legally recognized, then this process will likely have to happen first or as part of the custody process.
2. Prepare for the custody process
The court custody process is usually very long and can be emotionally and financially draining. If you are representing yourself in court, you can learn about the court process and how to present evidence on our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section. If you are able to hire an attorney, you can use this list of questions as your guide when deciding who to hire.
During the court process, you will try to prove why you should have your child’s custody. When preparing for court, you can gather evidence that helps make your case as to why you should have custody of the child. This process should be directed by the factors the law says a judge should consider when deciding custody. You can see How will a judge make a decision about custody? for more information. It’s important to consider that the judge will be focused on what is in the best interest of your child and many states consider that this is to have a relationship with both parents.
3. Prepare for trial
There will be one or more hearings, including a trial, if the parties cannot reach an agreement by themselves or as part of a mediation process. During trial, you or your attorney will be able to present evidence and to cross-examine the other party to help the judge make a decision.
If you are a victim of domestic violence, you can plan for your safety while in court and you should ask the judge to include some protections in the custody order. For example, you can ask for some of the following terms:
- communications between the parents can only be in writing;
- all communications can only be related to the child; and
- a neutral third party should be present at the exchange of the child or should be the one to drop off and pick up the child.
You should also try to be as specific as possible in terms of the decision-making powers of each parent, who has the child on holidays, birthdays, etc., and the time and place for pick-ups and drop-offs of the child as to avoid future conflicts.
4. Options if you lose the custody case
There could be a couple of options that are filed immediately after the judge makes the custody order:
- A motion for reconsideration asks the judge to decide differently based on the law or new evidence.
- An appeal moves the case to a higher court and asks that court to review the lower court’s decision due a judge’s error.
A petition to change (modify) the order is an option that would not be filed right away. You could ask for a modification if, later on, a substantial change of circumstances happens. A few examples could be if the other parent gets sent to jail, gets charged with child abuse or neglect, or moves to another state.
You can also watch our Custody, Visitation, and Child Support videos where we explain the process. The videos include information about the different types of custody and visitation and related legal concepts that a judge will consider, child support, and moving out of state with your child.
Do I need a lawyer?
You do not need a lawyer to file for custody. However, it may be best to get a lawyer, to make sure that your rights are protected. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may be able to find sources of free or low-cost legal help on our NJ Finding a Lawyer. Additionally, in some cases, the judge may decide that it is appropriate to order the other party to pay your attorney fees.1
If you are unable to get a lawyer, you can visit your local courthouse to file the paperwork that you will need to start a custody case.
You should know that court workers cannot tell you whether you should bring your case to court or what will happen if you do. Even if you plan on representing yourself, it may be helpful for you to have a lawyer review your forms before you file them.
If you are going to be in court without a lawyer, our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section may be useful to you.
1 NJ Court Rules, R. 5:3-5(c)
Do I have to go to mediation even if I am a domestic violence victim?
The judge will not refer the case for mediation if you have a temporary or final restraining order against the other party. In cases where there is domestic violence but no restraining order has been issued, or in cases involving child abuse or sexual abuse, the judge can still refer the custody or parenting time issues to mediation. However, domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual abuse issues would not be mediated. If you are referred to mediation, you can ask the judge to remove your case from mediation. The judge will do so if there is “good cause” for it.1
1 N.J. Court Rules, R. 1:40-5(a)(1)
Can I get financial support for my children?
Both parents have a shared responsibility to support their children. The parent who has a child under his/her care can request child support. You can find more information on our NJ Child Support section.