In Z.A. v. R.V., Jr., an unpublished Appellate Division case, meaning not precedential, the Appellate Division ruled that the best interests of the child governs a surname change. This rationale falls squarely with the court’s previous cases that a child’s name change must be evaluated under the best interest standard. Emma v. Evans, 215 N.J. 197 (2013); Gubernat v. Deremer, 140 N.J. 120 (1995). You can read our prior blog post on Emma here: https://njfamilylaw.foxrothschild.com/?s=emma+v.+evans. What we can gather is litigation over a child’s name or surname continues to be a contested issue. The analysis is fact-sensitive and will vary from case to case. In this case, the mother was permitted to change her son’s last name to be hyphenated with both hers and the father’s last names.
Defendant-father appeals the trial court’s decision to change the parties’ son surname. Plaintiff-mother made an application to change the parties’ son surname from Defendant’s surname to the hyphenated surnames of both Plaintiff and Defendant.
Plaintiff and Defendant were not married, but were in a dating relationship since February 2012. Plaintiff became a foster parent to a four-day old boy in April 2012 and lived solely with Plaintiff until November 2012, when Defendant moved in with Plaintiff. When the parties’ adoption was finalized in December 2014 and they agreed that their son would take Defendant’s surname.
In September 2017, the parties separated. At this time, Plaintiff wished for the parties’ son to the hyphenated surnames of both her and Defendant, which Defendant opposed. The parties proceeded to a name change hearing after entering into an agreement regarding custody, parenting time, and child support. After conducting the hearing, the trial court granted Plaintiff’s application for the child’s name changed. Defendant requested a stay of the ruling pending appeal.
On appeal, Defendant argued that the trial court failed to apply the factors as set forth in Emma 215 N.J. 197 (2013) and the trial court abused its discretion by “focusing on whether the proposed name change would be contrary to the child’s best interests.” Z.A., at *3 Specifically, Defendant argued that the trial court impermissibly considered in factor three (3) consideration of Plaintiff’s potential anxiety, embarrassment or discomfort as opposed to a “child-centric” analysis. Z.A. at *6.
When a party makes a name change application, the burden is on the moving party to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the name change is in the best interest of the child. Emma, 215 N.J. at 222. The court in Emma listed several factors that bear on whether the name change is in the child’s best interests, some of which were originally articulated by Gubernat v. Deremer, 140 N.J. 120, 141-42 (1995):
- The length of time the child has used his or her given surname.
- Identification of the child with a particular family unit.
- Potential anxiety, embarrassment, or discomfort that may result from having a different surname from that of the custodial parent.
- The child’s preference if the child is mature enough to express a preference.
- Parental misconduct or neglect, such as failure to provide support or maintain contact with the child.
- Degree of community respect, or lack thereof, associated with either parental or maternal name.
- Improper motivation on the part of the parent seeking the name change.
- Whether the mother has changed or intends to change her name upon remarriage.
- Whether the child has a strong relationship with any siblings with different names.
- Whether the surname has important ties to family heritage or ethnic identity.
- The effect of a name change on the relationship between the child and each parent.
Emma, 215 N.J. at 223.
The Appellate Division found the trial court appropriately applied the above factors. As to Defendant’s argument that the trial court considered Plaintiff’s potential anxiety, embarrassment, or discomfort, the trial court only acknowledged that this factor could apply to parents. However, the trial court emphasized the need to focus on the child’s best interest and further found that Plaintiff’s testimony as to her potential anxiety, embarrassment, or discomfort not compelling. The trial court found the hyphenated name would promote “important ties to family heritage or ethnic heritage” to both sides of the child’s family. Therefore, the Appellate Division affirmed the granting of the name change application.
The primary focus of a name change application is what is in the best interests of the child. While all factors do not need to be present, a trial court still must consider all the factors and determine which are applicable to the facts of the case.