The recent unpublished (i.e., non-precedential) case of M.E.G. v. C.P. (link) shows how unpredictable family law matters can be. In the case, a child was born in June of 2016 in New Jersey. Under N.J.S.A., children may not be removed out of New Jersey without the consent of both parents unless a Court permits the removal. The parties were not married but planned to relocate from New Jersey to Florida after the child’s birth for a fresh start and financial stability. In November of 2017, the parties executed a relocation agreement which allowed the mother to relocate to Florida with the child and contemplated the father moving to Florida at a later time.

Thereafter, in December 2017, the mother moved to Florida with the child, and the father sent money to help with the child’s expenses. However, the father did not relocate to Florida as contemplated, and the couple eventually separated in May of 2018. That same month, the mother brought the child back to New Jersey to live with the father until she became more financially stable, at which time she would bring the child back to Florida. Once 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 return to New Jersey.

Thereafter, the mother filed a Motion to be named Parent of Primary Residence. The Court held a Plenary Hearing and designated the father as the Parent of Primary Residence. The mother then filed for a modification of the Custody determination and sought permission to move the child to Florida with her.

The Trial Court found that a change in circumstances occurred when the mother brought the child back to New Jersey to live with the father while she worked. The Court further found that the relocation agreement did not “carry much weight anymore” and ordered the father be the Parent of Primary Residence. In determining that it was in the best interests of the child that residential custody be with the father, the Court reviewed the fourteen factors outlined in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c). Of note, the Court found that the parties can communicate and cooperate with matters relating to the child, but at times were unable to do so for themselves. The Court found each parent willing to accept custody, but that the mother was less cooperative in providing communication time for defendant. With regard to the interaction and relationship of the child with parents and siblings, the Court noted that the father made an effort to have the child see their half-brothers. The Court found no history of domestic violence for either party, and that the child’s preference did not apply due to the child’s age. The Court also found that both parents could adequately care for the child, and that both parents could provide a stable home for the child, along with educational needs. The Court found the geographical distance between Florida and New Jersey made coordinating parenting time difficult. The Court further found both parents spent quality time with the child prior to and after their separation and that both parents were serious about their employment responsibilities. Finally, the Court found that the child would maintain relationships with his half-brothers better if they remained in New Jersey.

What is the lesson to be learned from this case? It is that, although the parties had a written relocation agreement permitting the child to move to Florida, the New Jersey Court’s primary consideration when determining custody and parenting time is always the best interests of the child. Moreover, any custody arrangement, whether ordered by the Court or based on the parties’ agreement, is modifiable based on a showing of changed circumstances, with the Court determining what is in the child’s best interests by reviewing the factors outlined in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4. Here, the Court found that the Mother bringing the child back to New Jersey after moving to Florida constituted a significant change in circumstances, warranting a modification from the relocation order in the child’s best interests.