There is no doubt that New Jersey family courts throughout the state have a difficult and complex job of determining whether to allow a custodial parent to relocate with their children. As a divorce attorney, I have represented both the custodial parent as well as the noncustodial parent who disputes the relocation which is significantly distant from the their residence. A decision may position a custodial parent’s wish to improve his/her circumstances by making a reasonable move against a noncustodial parent’s reasonable desire to maintain the frequent contact with the minor child – which many consider essential to any parental relationship.
As a New Jersey child custody attorney have found that often Courts who are charged with making this decision “outsource” the determination to a custody evaluator to look at the situation from a psychological standpoint. The evaluator is pegged with the task of analyzing the effects on the children from no longer having easy access to the parent who is left behind. This has raised much debate among the legal and psychological communities. Do such relocations harm the children and damage their relationships with the non-custodial parents? Would allowing the children to move with the custodial parent be beneficial to the children? These are all questions that conflict the courts’ decisions and psychologists’ analysis when faced with post-divorce relocations of parents when a child’s best interest is to be considered.
One question that client’s commonly ask me is whether the court will give consideration to the children’s feelings and preferences about relocation. Some child psychologists have held that the Court should be responsive to the child’s voice, above the voice of the competing parents. However, I have found that Courts often warn that it is essential to recognize the limitations and potential drawbacks of relying on the children’s preferences. For example, I have found that Court’s consider the fact that children may say things to please one parent of the other, or may be investing too much caring for a needy parent, while sacrificing their own developmental needs.
Another concern I have found that is shared by Courts and psychologists alike is the fact that children’s attitudes can also be manipulated by others and custody litigation is one circumstance that this very often occurs. However, this theory has received criticism by some psychologists as disrespectful to the child’s opinion to view the child as only a puppet and attribute the child’s responses to manipulation by adults as if a child had no mind of his/her own, or legitimate feelings.
There is no hard-line rule that the Courts follow as to whether to consider the child’s opinion in a relocation matter. I have found it to be truly on a “case by case” basis. However, neither option will relieve the Courts of the difficult task of finding a workable and acceptable remedy for the parent who has a reasonable objection to the other parent’s request to move – the most difficult problem arises from the Court’s reluctance to enter an order which directly restricts a parent’s right to move vs. directly restricting the parent-left-behind’s ability to have meaningful parenting time with his/her children.