NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 15, 2013
Before Judges Yannotti and St. John.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Mercer County, Docket No. FD-11-498-12.
Nicole C. Solvibile, attorney for appellant.
Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein & Blader, P.C., attorneys for respondent (Jeffrey K. Epstein and Robert P. Panzer, of counsel and on the brief).
Defendant appeals from an order entered by the Family Part on June 21, 2012, which granted plaintiff's motion to change the surname of the parties' minor child from "Vance" to "Vance-Fried." We reverse and remand for further proceedings.
This appeal arises from the following facts. The parties had a relationship while they were in high school, which resulted in the birth of a child. Plaintiff and defendant were fifteen years old at the time. Plaintiff was present when the child was born. Defendant decided to name the child Jennifer Lee Vance and plaintiff did not object. Thereafter, defendant continued to live with her parents with the child.
In 2011, plaintiff filed this action seeking regular parenting time with the child. He also sought to change the child's surname name from "Vance" to either "Vance-Fried" or "Fried-Vance." Plaintiff submitted a certification in support of the proposed name change.
Plaintiff stated that, when the child was born, defendant and her mother completed the form for issuance of the birth certificate, indicating that the child's surname was "Vance." Plaintiff did not "make an issue of it" at the time because the parties were "still together as a couple" and were considering marriage when they were older. Plaintiff assumed that the child's surname would then be changed to "Fried."
Plaintiff said it had become apparent that the parties "are never going to marry." He stated that he thought it best for the child to have both parents' names in her surname. Plaintiff indicated that he had been "part of" the child's life since she was born, and noted that he commenced this action so that he could have regular parenting time with the child.
Plaintiff also stated that, in view of the circumstances of the child's birth and the fact that she had never lived as part of a traditional family unit with both biological parents, having the name "Vance-Fried" or "Fried-Vance" would give the child a "tangible link to both parents." He said there was no detriment in having a surname with the names of both parents. This would show that, although the child "has never lived together with both [of] her parents, both parents love her and want the world to know that she is their child."
Defendant opposed the motion. In her certification, defendant stated that plaintiff had agreed the child would be called "[Jennifer] Vance" and he signed the birth certificate. The child was born with certain medical problems and required surgery. Defendant said the parties could not take care of the child and her parents "raised our child." Defendant said her mother and father were the child's psychological parents.
Defendant also said that she has continued to reside with her parents. She was pursuing her education and was working in the field of cosmetology. Defendant noted plaintiff has had parenting time with the child almost every weekend.
Defendant additionally stated that plaintiff had not provided any financial support for the child, and she was going to file a separate application on that issue. Defendant did not believe it was in the child's best interest to change the child's name. She thought plaintiff's request for a name change was "to spite me" or was due to plaintiff's "unreasonable fear that [her] parents were seeking to take [Jennifer] from him."
The parties met with a mediator and on January 18, 2012, the judge entered a consent order which provided, among other things, that the parties would have joint legal custody of the child, with defendant designated as parent of primary residential custody and plaintiff allowed parenting time according to a specified schedule. The order noted that the dispute regarding the name change had not been resolved.
The court conducted a brief, plenary hearing on that issue. Plaintiff testified that he was twenty years old. He was living with his mother and brothers and worked at a restaurant some weekends. Plaintiff wanted the child's name changed so that she would "have a constant reminder" that he was there and wanted to be part of her life. When the child was born, he agreed the ...