The most recent unpublished (i.e., non-precedent) MEG v CP (Link) case shows how unpredictable family law matters can be. In the case, a child was born in New Jersey in June 2016. According to the NJSA, children cannot be deported from New Jersey without the consent of both parents unless a court approves the deportation. The parties were not married, but wanted to move from New Jersey to Florida after the child was born to allow for a fresh start and financial stability. In November 2017, the parties signed a relocation agreement allowing the mother to move to Florida with the child and contemplated allowing the father to move to Florida at a later date.
After that, in December 2017, the mother and child moved to Florida, and the father sent money to help fund the child’s expenses. However, the father did not move to Florida as planned, and the couple eventually separated in May 2018. That same month, the mother brought the child back to New Jersey to live with the father until it became more financially stable and she would bring the child to Florida return. After the mother found a better paying job, she visited the child in New Jersey and took the child to Florida without the father’s consent. The father filed an Order to Show Cause, and the court ordered the child’s return to New Jersey.
After that, the mother submitted an application for appointment as the parent of the main residence. The court held a plenary hearing and determined the father to be the primary residence parent. The mother then requested a change in the custody rule and requested permission to take the child to Florida with her.
The court found that circumstances changed when the mother brought the child back to New Jersey to live with the father while she worked. The court also ruled that the relocation agreement “no longer carries much weight” and ordered the father to be the parent of the primary residence. In determining that it was in the child’s best interests that custody of the father lay with the father, the court reviewed the fourteen factors described in NJSA 9: 2-4 (c). Notably, the Court found that the parties could communicate and cooperate on matters related to the child, but sometimes could not do so for themselves. The court found that all parents were willing to take custody, but the mother was less cooperative in giving the defendant communication time. Regarding the child’s interaction and relationship with parents and siblings, the court found that the father tried to ensure that the child could see his half-brothers. The court found none of the parties had a history of domestic violence and the child’s preference did not apply based on the child’s age. The court also found that both parents can adequately care for the child and that both parents can provide the child with a stable home with educational needs. The court found that the geographical distance between Florida and New Jersey made it difficult to coordinate parental leave. The Court also found that both parents spent valuable time with the child before and after the separation and that both parents took their professional responsibilities seriously. Eventually, the court found that the child would be better able to maintain relationships with his half-brothers if they stayed in New Jersey.
What is the lesson from this case? Although the parties had a written relocation agreement that allowed the child to move to Florida, the primary consideration of the New Jersey court in determining custody and parental leave is always the best interests of the child. In addition, any custody arrangement, whether ordered by the court or based on the agreement of the parties, may be amended if circumstances change, with the court determining what is in the best interests of the child by reviewing the factors described in NJSA 9: 2 – 4th Here the court found that the fact that the mother returned the child to New Jersey after moving to Florida was a material change in circumstances that warranted a change in the relocation order for the child’s best interests.