In a case of first impression in New Jersey, I was privileged to represent the mother and custodial parent of a transgender child in a contested, but successful, application for the child’s legal name to be changed to the name which more accurately reflects the gender with which he identifies. The case, Sacklow v. Betts, has resulted in a reported decision (precedential) and gives guidance for judges who will no doubt be addressing these issues in the future.
Janet Sacklow retained counsel to represent her in connection with various issues surrounding her child’s gender identity issues. This included treatment for hormones, mental health services, and allowing the child to assume the name of Trevor Adam. The child’s father had objected to various applications over the years related to the child’s gender identity, and initially objected to this as well, asking that the child’s given name, Veronica, continue. During the trial in the matter, the father seemingly changed his mind, while at the same time expressing concerns that a name change was not in the child’s best interests. Given the history of the father taking inconsistent positions in connection with the child, it was requested that the court make an independent finding as to the application for a name change.
The court found that the standard that should be used when there is a request for a name change when a child is transgender is whether or not the name change is in the child’s best interests. However, the court then went on the note factors which should specifically be considered by a judge making such a decision. Those factors are:
(1) The age of the child; (2) The length of time the child has used the preferred name; (3) Any potential anxiety, embarrassment or discomfort that may result from the child having a name he or she believes does not match his or her outward appearance and gender identity; (4) The history of any medical or mental health counseling the child has received; (5) The name the child is known by in his or her family, school and community; (6) The child’s preference and motivations for seeking the name change; (7) Whether both parents consent to the name change, and if consent is not given, the reason for withholding consent.
In this case, the child had disclosed the fact that he identified as male several years previously. He had been under the care of health care providers for a significant amount of time and was confident in his gender identity. He was known as Trevor in school, to his friends, and to the vast majority of his family. He was treating with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and was in the process of his mental and physical transition to male. He was shortly going to obtain a drivers’ license, and the idea of having a picture that did not “match” his name caused him significant stress. The court, which had taken testimony from both parents as well as the child, unequivocally concluded that it was in the child’s best interests to have his name changed.
The law relating to gender identity, sexual orientation and associated issues is constantly changing and developing. This case provides litigants and their counsel guidance in an emerging are of the law that will likely be addressed by courts in this and other jurisdictions.
Jennifer Weisberg Millner is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Jennifer is resident in the firm’s Princeton Office, although she practices throughout the state. Jennifer can be reached at 609-895-7612 or firstname.lastname@example.org.