Modifying A Child’s Last Name Not a Violation of Best Interests
By Snyder Sarno D'Aniello Maceri & da Costa LLC on June 12, 2020
As a society, we hope that parents always have the best interests of their children at heart but unfortunately that is not always the case. Due to this, courts have consistently held that a child’s “best interests” means encouraging the child’s happiness, security, and emotional development. Courts aim to foster strong and loving relationships between children, their parents, and other family members.
When deciding the best interests of a child, courts consider, among other factors:
- The wishes of the child;
- The physical, mental, and emotional health of the parents;
- The continuation of a stable home environment;
- Changes in the school environment;
- Community Involvement;
- Evidence of any drug or alcohol abuse by parents; and
- Evidence of any sexual or child abuse to the child.
These factors are considered as a whole when deciding how the child’s custody arrangement should be allocated.
A recent unpublished Appellate Division case Z.A. v. R.V., JR., NO. A-4110-18T2, 2020 Lexis 998 (App. Div. May 27, 2020) discussed the ability to amend a child’s surname after the parents separate. In April 2012, plaintiff, who was dating defendant for a few months, became a foster parent. The child lived solely with plaintiff for a few months and then defendant decided that he would also become the child’s foster parent. In 2014, both parents adopted the child and gave him defendant’s last name. Upon the parties’ separation in 2017, plaintiff moved to change the child’s surname by hyphenating her surname and defendant’s surname. The trial judge granted plaintiff’s name change request. Upon appeal, the trial judge was affirmed. The Appellate Division held that "When parents have agreed on a name at birth, the parent seeking the name change in a subsequent dispute must bear the burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that the name change is in the child's best interest." The "best-interests-of-the-child test" applies regardless of whether the parents are married or unmarried "at the time of the child's birth."
However, unlike a typical custody determination, requests to change the surname of a child are analyzed based upon additional factors such as the length the child has used the given last name, identification of the child within a family unit, potential anxiety or embarrassment of the child having a different surname from the custodial parent, and the child’s preference. Specifically, in Emma v. Evans, 215 N.J. 197 (2013), the New Jersey Supreme Court identified a "gender-neutral and child centered totality of-the-circumstances analysis of the child's interest in retaining or having altered his or her given surname." Id. at 223.
Here, the trial judge and the Appellate Division held that hyphenating the child’s surname did not go against the best interest of the child. In fact, the trial judge found that both parties were "exemplary parents" and that the name change would allow the child to "enjoy and . . . be enriched by both sides of his family heritage, and it's . . . not by one side at the expense of the other."
If you or a loved one require assistance regarding a family law matter, please contact the skilled matrimonial attorneys at Snyder Sarno D’Aniello Maceri & da Costa LLC. Call us today at (973) 274-5200. SSDMD has fully adapted to the social distancing requirements and is offering contact-less options for consultations, meetings, mediations and arbitrations.
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