Gaulkin, J.s.c., Temporarily Assigned.
Plaintiff Fiolia M. Dec, as mother and natural guardian of Christopher Dennis Lone, an infant, brings this action to permit the child to assume her present surname of Dec. N.J.S.A. 2A:52-1; R. 4:72. The natural father, Dennis Lone, opposes the application.
Christopher was born on January 12, 1970. His parents, who had married in 1968, separated shortly after his birth and were divorced on November 24, 1970. The decree awarded custody of the child to plaintiff and granted "reasonable" visitation rights to the father.
On April 4, 1974, plaintiff married Leon Thomas Dec and assumed Dec as her surname. One child, Leon Dec, has been born of this marriage. At all times since the marriage Christopher has lived with the Dec family. It is not questioned that he is well-cared for by and fully integrated into the Dec household.
Except for one or two brief periods when he lived with his parental grandparents, Christopher has been in the custody of plaintiff since her separation from Mr. Lone. For approximately three years following the separation and divorce Lone lived and worked in New Jersey and exercised his visitation rights 40 to 50 times, by his estimate. Plaintiff confirmed that during that time Lone had taken Christopher for overnight visitations some 25 times.
In October 1973, having lost his job, Lone joined the Navy. He underwent basic training in Florida and then was assigned to duty in Alaska for approximately a year. During that time he did not see Christopher at all and had only minimal contacts through sending occasional gifts. At the end of the Alaska tour of duty Lone had the opportunity to select his next assignment and requested duty along the East Coast; he did so, he testified, in order to be able to resume his contacts with Christopher. He is now stationed in Maine. Lone testified credibly and persuasively of his continuing love and affection for Christopher and his desire to maintain and advance his relationship with his son.
Although plaintiff testified that Lone is often tardy in remitting the $25 weekly child support sum required by the divorce decree, the proofs justify the conclusion that there are no arrearages now, that any past arrearages have been short-lived and of modest amount, and that plaintiff has not required any assistance of the court in enforcing the decree. Lone further provides health insurance coverage for Christopher and has named him the beneficiary of his government life insurance policy.
Neither party suggested that testimony be taken of Christopher himself. Plaintiff and her present husband, however,
testified that the child has indicated his wish to use the name Dec and that he calls Mr. Dec "Daddy." Given the child's age and the doubts that reasonably arise as to what prompted these usages, little weight should be given to them. Cf. Degerberg v. McCormick, 41 Del. Ch. 46, 187 A.2d 436 (Ch. 1963).
In her brief plaintiff advances essentially three reasons why Christopher should assume the surname Dec: first, that to require him "to live with a name different from his mother and brother would be to ask this child to carry a burden through his formative years that can very well have very negative psychological implications"; second, that Lone "has abandoned his child," and third, that "bureaucratic red tape" will "create chaos" if formal recognition is not given to a name which Christopher might use informally.
Only three reported New Jersey cases appear to have considered an application of this kind. In Sobel v. Sobel, 46 N.J. Super. 284 (Ch. Div. 1957), the natural father sought to restrain the mother, who had since remarried, from enrolling their children in school under any name other than his surname. The mother, who had enrolled the children in school under the surname of her second husband, resisted her former husband's application on the grounds "that he ignores the responsibility of his children, fails to provide adequate support while he operates a successful business, and is indifferent in complying ...