Although one cannot deny the genetic ties between biological parents and their children, the idea of being a family goes far beyond a DNA match of 99.99%. Many individuals, for example, have adopted children who are viewed the same as their biological children in the eyes of the law, as well as society. There are also plenty of cases where children are raised by relatives such as an aunt, uncle or grandparent because of the unfitness or absence of the biological parents. These caretakers, who provide a child with consistent emotional and financial support, in addition to the basic needs, are referred to as “psychological parents”.
What happens, though, when there is a custody dispute between a fit biological parent and a fit psychological parent? This type of scenario is common when a man realizes that he has fathered a child, or that a child that he had assumed was someone else's is actually his. If the child is currently being raised by the other parent, the father can assert his custodial rights for the purpose of visitation and child support. If, on the other hand, the child is being raised by a third party due to the mother's physical, mental or financial inability to care for the child, the courts would need to determine whether the child should stay with the psychological parent, or be given over to the biological parent.
As a general rule, the courts presume the biological parent to be entitled to custody as long as he or she is seen to be a fit parent. A psychological parent, however, can overcome this presumption by satisfying four standards of a parent-like relationship to the court's satisfaction. Once these conditions have been met, the court will make a custody decision based on the child's best interests.
- The biological parent consented to or fostered a parent-like relationship between the child and the psychological parent.
- The psychological parent and the child live together in the same household.
- The psychological parent has taken on significant responsibility for the child's physical and emotional development. This includes significant contributions towards child support, both monetary and non-monetary, without expectation of financial compensation.
- The child has been in the psychological parent's care long enough to establish a deeply dependent relationship that is parental in nature. Thus, separating the child from the psychological parent is likely to be disruptive and traumatizing to the child.
Whether you are the biological or psychological parent, a custody dispute will be one of the most complex and emotionally taxing experiences of your life. While custody trials involve a myriad of personal factors, the foundation of a judge's ruling is ultimately based on the current laws and legal precedents. Thus, it's imperative to retain representation from an attorney who has extensive trial experience in the New Jersey family courts. For a full discussion of your rights and legal options, please schedule a free consultation with the family law attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.