The Importance of Determining Residency for School Purposes
The Decision of Residency for Educational Purposes has an Immediate Impact on a Child’s Education. These Determinations Become Particularly Significant and Sometimes, Messy in Divorce and Custody Cases.
Life after a divorce may be full of surprises. Though your marital settlement agreement covers everything from child custody to property division, you may be surprised that your plans for your child’s housing and education are outside your control, despite your divorce decree. Deciding where your children attend school must consider school law and district policies, which are essential when your child moves or your custody order does not reflect the domicile where your children attend school.
How Does a Judge Decide Where a Child Goes to School in New Jersey?
You must consider your marital settlement agreement’s child custody terms to ensure your children’s education is in your control. In New Jersey, a child’s residence may be primarily with one parent with visitation rights to the other. Custodial arrangements prioritize the best interests of the child. In determining a child’s best interests, a family part judge considers the cooperation and communication between the parents. When parents can agree on what is in the child’s best interests, the court can approve custodial arrangements the parties agree to, so long as they promote the child’s best interests.
However, when parties do not agree, the court must look at factors such as a child’s siblings, their family’s history of abuse, domestic violence, or parental unfitness. A child’s safety is paramount. Other factors include the child’s preference when they are old enough to make an intelligent decision, education consistency, geographical distance between parents, the child’s relationship with each parent, each parent’s employment responsibilities, and the ages and number of their children. The law assumes that a child should have ample contact with each parent in divorce and separation situations (N.J.S.A. 9:2-4).
Impact of Custodial Arrangements on School Enrollment in NJ
A court may grant one parent sole legal and physical custody, giving the other appropriate parenting time. Legal custody refers to the parental right to make essential decisions regarding a child’s health, education, and welfare, and physical custody includes the parenting time allotted to each parent. So, in cases where one parent works long hours or struggles with substance abuse or other issues that require devoted time to self-care and counseling, a family judge may order sole legal and physical custody to the other parent.
Another option is joint physical and legal custody for both parents, which requires a coherent and stable cooperative arrangement of how much time a child spends at each residence. In this custodial arrangement, parents jointly decide major decisions concerning their children. However, the court can craft custodial arrangements that make sense for all involved in a parenting plan, including where the children spend school vacations, holidays, birthdays, and other life details annually.
Governing Laws Regarding NJ Public Education Enrollment
When it comes to education, parents have limited public school choices. By law, a child attends school in the district where they reside 50% or more of the time. In fact, parents who place their children in schools in outside districts may be liable to reimburse the district for their children’s tuition, which could be tens of thousands of dollars. Thus, when parents place their child in the noncustodial parent’s school district because it is a better school, they must beware of the consequences of getting caught by the school district.
Consequences for Violating School District Policies
When a school administrator discovers a student enrolled in the wrong district, the Board of Education can set a hearing to determine whether the student must leave the school. The parents receive notice of the hearing and may appeal the Board’s decision. The Commissioner of Education’s decision is the final word on appeal, and when they rule against the parents, the Board can bill the parents for the time their child spent at the school illegally (N.J.A.C. 6A:22-4.2(b)(6)).
Are There Any Exceptions for School District Policies in New Jersey?
There are exceptions, however. For example, the State Board of Education allows a hardship exception for children living temporarily with others during a divorce or separation. When an emergency or hardship arises for a family, a child may be able to attend school in a district other than where they reside (N.J.A.C. 6A:22-3.2(a)). However, they must file the appropriate affidavit with the child’s school district. Otherwise, a child’s parents must appoint temporary adult caretakers as legal guardians.
Establishing Residency in Joint Custody Cases in Monmouth County, NJ
When a child lives primarily with one parent but visits with the other, the child’s school is in the district of the child’s primary residence. However, when divorced or separated parents share parenting equally, a child may live half with one parent and half with the other. In that case, the child can attend school in the district of either parent when each parent lives in a separate school district. To safeguard the right to remain in a specific district, parents with joint custody may designate one parent as the parent of primary residence to eliminate any doubt about where the children attend public school. And, of course, when a parent has more than 50% physical custody, they want to ensure the divorce decree designates them as the parent of primary residence to prevent school district disputes.
As such, a custodial determination of primary custody to one parent has consequences for a child’s education. And a judge may look at where the child may get the best education as a factor in deciding custody. A child’s best interests are the measure against which a judge decides any custody order, and a judge is the final arbiter of where a child resides. Even when parents agree to a custodial arrangement, a family judge has the final say when the best interests of the child or children are not met.
Changing Schools for the Best Interests of the Child in New Jersey
A child’s best interests may not be attending the best school when a child has established relationships and comfort in a lesser quality school. In the case of J.E. v. J.E., divorced parents differed on where their son should attend school. In their decree, they agreed to send the child to the “better school system for the child and the child’s best interests.” The order also stated that the court would decide which school if the parties could not agree in mediation. The parties shared equal custody.
When the child began to struggle in school, his father wanted to change to a better school academically to motivate the child to work harder, and the mother wished to keep him where he was. The mother contended the child was shy and emotionally connected to his school and friends. Her expert psychologist testified that in testing the child, she concluded he did not do well in the face of pressure and change; he was slow to make friends, not competitive, and suffered physical symptoms from stress, which would increase at a new school. The trial court denied the father’s request, stating it was not in the child’s best interests to change schools, and the appellate court affirmed.
Though a child may benefit from a better education, in the specific circumstances and child in J.E., the family court determined the child’s best interests were to preserve his emotional stability over a better education. In J.E., the mother’s attorney presented strong evidence by hiring a psychologist who could inform the court about the specific characteristics of the child.
How Can a Child Custody Lawyer Assist Me With School Residency Issues in New Jersey?
Custody in divorce or post-divorce proceedings hinges on specific factors unique to each family. There is no one size fits all. However, seasoned family law attorneys such as those on our team at Bronzino Law Firm assist parents facing school-related challenges by considering the family’s situation and the judicial factors defining a child’s best interests. Our family lawyers fully understand how to prepare and present compelling evidence to sway a court decision in our client’s favor and in the best interests of the children involved. We also have the experience to ensure the language in a marital settlement agreement protects a parent and their children regarding custody, residence, and education matters.
Contact us at (732) 812-3102 if you are in need of assistance with a divorce, custody, or family law matter involving your child’s education in Monmouth Beach, Red Bank, Marlboro, Toms River, Freehold, Manalapan, Holmdel, Lavallette, Brick, Jackson, Middletown, and across the Jersey Shore.