On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
The issue in this appeal is whether the courts below applied the proper standard in this name change dispute.
Plaintiff Kathleen F. Ronan (plaintiff) and defendant Peter Adely, Jr.(defendant) are the biological parents of Brendan Peter Adely (Brendan). Brendan was born on October 29, 1998. Plaintiff and respondent never married and plaintiff assumed most, if not all, of the childcare responsibilities. The parties' relationship began to deteriorate and in December 1999 they separated. Plaintiff and Brendan moved in with her parents.
Thereafter, plaintiff filed a complaint seeking sole legal custody of Brendan and reasonable child support. Defendant filed a counterclaim seeking joint legal custody. The trial court ordered joint legal custody, continued the child support arrangement between the parties and set temporary visitation rights for defendant. Subsequently, defendant filed a motion seeking increased visitation and other relief unrelated to this appeal. Plaintiff filed a cross motion opposing the increased visitation and seeking permission to change Brendan's name from Brendan P. Adely to Brendan P. Adely Ronan. The trial court, in part, denied plaintiff's request to change Brendan'ssurname, noting that "Adely" had been used for over two years.
On September 27, 2002, the trial court denied a request by plaintiff to postpone defendant's overnight visitation. Plaintiff appealed from that order and from the prior order denying her request to change Brendan's surname. In her brief to the Appellate Division, plaintiff asserted that Brendan referred to himself by the surname Ronan. Defendant did not dispute that assertion. Brendan was more than four years old at the time plaintiff filed her appeal below.
In an unreported decision, the Appellate Division concluded that plaintiff had failed to demonstrate how assuming the surname Ronan would promote Brendan's best interests without risking damage to a significant connection with his father. The panel affirmed the trial court's determination.
The Supreme Court granted certification limited solely to the issue of Brendan's surname.
HELD: When the primary caretaker seeks to name or, as here, change the surname of a child, there is a presumption in favor of the primary caretaker that the name selected is in the best interests of the child. That presumption may be rebutted by proof offered by the secondary caretaker that the name change is not in the best interests of the child. Because the trial court failed to apply that presumption and failed to make findings of fact, a remand is required.
1. In Gubernat v. Deremer, 140 N.J. 120, 141 (1995), this Court concluded that gender-based presumptions should play no part in a child's surname and that in resolving disagreements between parents concerning a child's surname, "we apply the best-interests-of-the-child standard." In applying the best interests of the child standard, we noted that courts have considered a number of specified criteria. Courts have experienced difficulty in applying those criteria to the "speculative quality of the inquiry into the effect that the chosen surname would have on the future welfare and happiness of the child." Id. at 142. To lessen that difficulty and to increase the predictability of such analyses, "we adopt[ed] a strong presumption in favor of the surname chosen by the [primary caretaker]." Id. at 144. We further concluded that the secondary caretaker "bears the burden of demonstrating by a preponderance of the evidence that despite the presumption favoring the [primary caretaker]'s choice of name, the chosen surname is not in the best interests of the child." Id. at 145. (Pp. 7-10)
2. We first note that the record in this case is deficient to make a meaningful review. In rejecting plaintiff's name change request, the trial court received no testimony from either of the parties and made no findings of fact. Additionally, the record does not contain a certification by the parties setting forth their respective reasons for or against the name change. Clearly, the trial court was incorrect in finding there was "no precedent for imposing [a child-name-change] under circumstances where a name has already been given and has been used for over 2 years." Moreover, neither the trial court not the Appellate Division addressed the presumption in favor of the primary caretaker's choice of surname. There is a presumption in favor of the primary caretaker, here plaintiff, that the surname chosen by her is in the best interests of the child. Defendant bears the burden to rebut that presumption. It is imperative that the trial court make clear its findings of fact in determining whether defendant met his burden to overcome the presumption that the name chosen by plaintiff was in the best interests of the child. Lastly, we note that plaintiff did not seek to remove the surname Adely from Brendan's full name. Rather, she sought to add Ronan after the birth-given surname Adely. That approach would be consistent with the public policy expressed in the regulations issued by the New Jersey State Department of Health for resolving disagreements concerning the selection of a surname at birth.
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LAVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN, and RIVERA-SOTO join in Justice WALLACE's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wallace
The trial court denied the request of the mother, the primary caretaker to change the surname of her son. The issue in this appeal is whether the court properly applied the best interests of the child standard, which includes a presumption in favor of the name selected by the primary caretaker. The Appellate Division affirmed in an ...