Family cases and divorce cases in New Jersey are governed by the Court Rules set up by the NJ Supreme Court. An attorney involved in visitation and family cases needs to be aware of the current rules.
The following is a portion of the NJ Court Rules which apply to certain family cases:
RULE 5:8. CUSTODY OF CHILDREN
5:8-1. Investigation Before Award
In family actions in which the court finds that the custody of children is a genuine and substantial issue the court shall refer the case to mediation in accordance with the provisions of R. 1:40-5. During the mediation process, the parties shall not be required to participate in custody evaluations with any expert. The parties may, however, agree to do so. The mediation process shall last no longer than two months from the date it commences or is ordered to commence, whichever is sooner. The court, on good cause shown, may extend the time period. The date for conclusion of mediation shall be set forth in any Case Management Order(s). If the mediation is not successful in resolving custody issues, the court may before final judgment or order require an investigation to be made by the Family Division of the character and fitness of the parties, the economic condition of the family and the financial ability of the party to pay alimony or support or both. In other family actions the court may, if the public interest so requires, order such an investigation. The court may continue any family action for the purpose of such investigation, but shall not withhold the granting of any temporary relief by way of alimony, support or pendente lite orders pertaining to parenting issues under R. 5:5-4 and R. 5:7-2 where the circumstances require. Such investigation of the parties shall be conducted by the Family Division of the county of venue, notwithstanding that one of the parties may live in another county, and the Family Division shall file its report with the court no later than 45 days after its receipt of the judgment or order requiring the investigation, unless the court otherwise provides. Such investigation of the parties shall be conducted by the probation office of the county of the home state of the child, notwithstanding that one of the parties may live in another country or state.
5:8-2. Direction for Periodic Reports
If an award of custody of minor children has been made, the court may in its discretion file a certified copy of its order or judgment with the probation office of the county or counties in which the child or children reside with a direction therein to such probation office to make periodic reports to the court as to the status of the custody. It shall be the duty of counsel to file 2 copies of the order or judgment with the probation office within 2 days, together with information concerning the exact place of residence of the child or children. Upon the filing of such report, the court may on its own motion and where it deems it necessary, reopen the case and schedule a formal hearing on proper notice to all parties.
A certified copy of a custody decree of another state filed with the Clerk of the Superior Court of this State shall be sent to the probation office of the county or counties in which the child or children reside.
5:8-3. Investigation After Award
The court may on its own motion when it deems it necessary or where an application is made by either party to modify the award or terms thereof, in its discretion require the investigation provided for in R. 5:8-1. The court may continue such application for the purpose of such investigation and report.
5:8-4. Filing of Reports
The written report of an investigation made pursuant to this rule shall be filed with the court, shall be furnished to the parties, and shall thereafter be filed in the office of the Chief Probation Officer. The report shall be regarded as confidential, except as otherwise provided by rule or by court order. The report shall be received as direct evidence of the facts contained therein which are within the personal knowledge of the probation officer who made the investigation and report, subject to cross-examination
5:8-5. Custody and Parenting Time/Visitation Plans, Recital in Judgment or Order
(a) In any family action in which the parties cannot agree to a custody or parenting time/visitation arrangement, the parties must each submit a Custody and Parenting Time/Visitation Plan to the court no later than seventy-five (75) days after the last responsive pleading, which the court shall consider in awarding custody and fixing a parenting time or visitation schedule.
Contents of Plan. The Custody and Parenting Time/Visitation Plan shall include but shall not be limited to the following factors:
(1) Address of the parties.
(2) Employment of the parties.
(3) Type of custody requested with the reasons for selecting the type of custody.
(a) Joint legal custody with one parent having primary residential care.
(b) Joint physical custody.
(c) Sole custody to one parent, parenting time/visitation to the other.
(d) Other custodial arrangement.
(4) Specific schedule as to parenting time/visitation including, but not limited to, weeknights, weekends, vacations, legal holidays, religious holidays, school vacations, birthdays and special occasions (family outings, extracurricular activities and religious services).
(5) Access to medical school records.
(6) Impact if there is to be a contemplated change of residence by a parent.
(7) Participation in making decisions regarding the child(ren).
(8) Any other pertinent information.
(b) The court shall set out in its order or judgment fully and specifically all terms and conditions relating to the award of custody and proper support for the children.
(c) Failure to comply with the provisions of the Custody and Parenting Time/Visitation Plan may result in the dismissal of the non-complying party's pleadings or the imposition of other sanctions, or both. Dismissed pleadings shall be subject to reinstatement upon such conditions as the court may order.
5:8-6. Trial of Custody Issue
Where the court finds that the custody of children is a genuine and substantial issue, the court shall set a hearing date no later than six months after the last responsive pleading. The court may, in order to protect the best interests of the children, conduct the custody hearing in a family action prior to a final hearing of the entire family action. As part of the custody hearing, the court may on its own motion or at the request of a litigant conduct an in camera interview with the child(ren). In the absence of good cause, the decision to conduct an interview shall be made before trial. If the court elects not to conduct an interview, it shall place its reasons on the record. If the court elects to conduct an interview, it shall afford counsel the opportunity to submit questions for the court's use during the interview and shall place on the record its reasons for not asking any question thus submitted. A stenographic or recorded record shall be made of each interview in its entirety. Transcripts thereof shall be provided to counsel and the parties upon request and payment for the cost. However, neither parent shall discuss nor reveal the contents of the interview with the children or third parties without permission of the court. Counsel shall have the right to provide the transcript or its contents to any expert retained on the issue of custody. Any judgment or order pursuant to this hearing shall be treated as a final judgment or order for custody.
RULE 5:8A. APPOINTMENT OF COUNSEL FOR CHILD
In all cases where custody or parenting time/visitation is an issue, the court may, on the application of either party or the child or children in a custody or parenting time/visitation dispute, or on its own motion, appoint counsel on behalf of the child or children. Counsel shall be an attorney licensed to practice in the courts of the State of New Jersey and shall serve as the child's lawyer. The appointment of counsel should occur when the trial court concludes that a child's best interest is not being sufficiently protected by the attorneys for the parties. Counsel may, on an interim basis or at the conclusion of the litigation, apply for an award of fees and costs with an appropriate affidavit of services, and the trial court shall award fees and costs, assessing same against either or both of the parties.
RULE 5:8B. APPOINTMENT OF GUARDIAN AD LITEM
(a) Appointment. In all cases in which custody or parenting time/visitation is an issue, a guardian ad litem may be appointed by court order to represent the best interests of the child or children if the circumstances warrant such an appointment. The services rendered by a guardian ad litem shall be to the court on behalf of the child. A guardian ad litem may be appointed by the court on its own motion or on application of either or both of the parents. The guardian ad litem shall file a written report with the court setting forth findings and recommendations and the basis thereof, and shall be available to testify and shall be subject to cross-examination thereon. In addition to the preparation of a written report and the obligation to testify and be cross-examined thereon, the duties of a guardian may include, but need not be limited to, the following:
1. Interviewing the children and parties.
2. Interviewing other persons possessing relevant information.
3. Obtaining relevant documentary evidence.
4. Conferring with counsel for the parties.
5. Conferring with the court, on notice to counsel.
6. Obtaining the assistance of independent experts, on leave of court.
7. Obtaining the assistance of a lawyer for the child (Rule 5:8A) on leave of court.
8. Such other matters as the guardian ad litem may request, on leave of court.
(b) Objection or Refusal of Appointment. A proposed guardian ad litem shall have the right to consent or to decline to serve as such, notice of such decision to be in writing to the court with copies to counsel. The parties shall have the right to object to the person appointed as guardian ad litem on good cause shown.
(c) Term. The term of the guardian ad litem shall be coextensive with the application pending before the court and shall end on the entry of a Judgment of Divorce or an Order terminating the application for which the appointment was made, unless continued by the court. The guardian ad litem shall have no obligation to file a notice of appeal from a Judgment or Order nor to participate in an appeal filed by a party.
(d) Fee. The hourly rate to be charged by the guardian ad litem shall be fixed in the initial appointing order and the guardian ad litem shall submit informational monthly statements to the parties. The court shall have the power and discretion to fix a retainer in the appointing order and to allocate final payment of the guardian ad litem fee between the parties. The guardian ad litem shall submit a certification of services at the conclusion of the matter, on notice to the parties, who will thereafter be afforded the right to respond prior to the court fixing the final fee.
Official Comment for Rules 5:8A and 5:8B
The purpose of Rules 5:8A and 5:8B is to eliminate the confusion between the role of a court-appointed counsel for a child and that of a court-appointed guardian ad litem (GAL). The Supreme Court's Family Division Practice Committee in its 1987-1988 Annual Report distinguishes the roles.
A court-appointed counsel's services are to the child. Counsel acts as an independent legal advocate for the best interests of the child and takes an active part in the hearing, ranging from subpoenaing and cross-examining witnesses to appealing the decision, if warranted. If the purpose of the appointment is for legal advocacy, then counsel would be appointed.
A court-appointed guardian ad litem's services are to the court on behalf of the child. The GAL acts as an independent fact finder, investigator and evaluator as to what furthers the best interests of the child. The GAL submits a written report to the court and is available to testify. If the purpose of the appointment is for independent investigation and fact finding, then a GAL would be appointed. The GAL can be an attorney, a social worker, a mental health professional or other appropriate person. If the primary function of the GAL is to act in the capacity of an expert, then the court should ordinarily appoint a GAL from the appropriate area of expertise. Attorneys acting on behalf of children in abuse or neglect cases and in termination of parental rights cases should act as counsel for the child pursuant to Rule 5:8A rather than in the capacity of a GAL pursuant to Rule 5:8B. See, Matter of M.R., 135 N.J. 155, 174, 638 A.2d 1274, 1283 (1994)).
These rules are not intended to expand the circumstances when such appointments are to be made; neither are these appointments to be made routinely.
Conclusion If involved in family court matters, immediately schedule an in-office appointment with an experienced attorney. Don't rely on a real estate attorney, or a family member who simply attended law school. When your future is on the line, hire a knowledgeable attorney.
The above information is a brief outline of Court Rules an attorney will review in applicable Family cases. If Kenneth Vercammen's office is unable to handle a case because it is outside our area, we often can refer individuals to experienced attorneys you can consult.
KENNETH VERCAMMEN & ASSOCIATES, PC ATTORNEY AT LAW 2053 Woodbridge Ave. Edison, NJ 08817 (Phone) 732-572-0500 (Fax) 732-572-0030