Applications seeking a child’s surname change and opposition to such a request are consistently filed and New Jersey Courts are well equipped to handle such a dispute. New Jersey Courts have the same authority to grant a name change application given the appropriate factual circumstances as it has to deny an application if the request is contrary to the child’s best interest. However, two recently conflicting appellate division cases have thrown a monkey wrench in the pool of (what was once thought to be) clear and established precedent on the issue.

In 1995, the New Jersey Supreme Court in Gubernat, the landmark case addressing name change applications for a child’s surname, held that when the primary caretaker (PPR) strives to modify the surname of a minor child, there is a strong presumption that the requested name change is in favor of the child’s best interest. Of course, the non-custodial parent bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the custodial parent’s request is contrary to the child’s best interest. The Supreme Court established certain factors to consider when deciding whether to grant an application for a name change for a minor child. Factors include, the length of time the child used a certain surname, the identification of the child as a member of a family unit, the potential anxiety, embarrassment, or uneasiness the child might experience if the child bears a last name dissimilar from his or her custodial parent, and, if applicable, the child’s expressed preference for a particular parental surname.

In 2003, the New Jersey Supreme Court heard Ronan v. Adely, where the mother, who happened to be the parent of primary care, filed an application to hyphenate the child’s surname where the mother’s name would be included with the father’s surname. The Court held that there was a strong presumption in favor of the surname chosen by the primary caretaker of the child (i.e. the mother) and clarified that it was the father (i.e. the parent of alternate residence) who, as a result, bore the burden of rebutting the presumption in favor of the mother’s desire to change the child’s name. The New Jersey Supreme Court further placed significant weight on the fact that the father did not object to the hyphenated surname proposed by the mother. Today, a New Jersey’s statute establishes that when both parents have custody of the child, are both available for the child but disagree on the selection of a surname, “the child shall be given a hyphenated surname based on alphabetical order.”

In 2012, the Appellate Court in Emma v. Evans when deciding the matter where the PPR unilaterally altered the child’s name in school and other documents, held that “the presumption in favor of the primary caregiver’s choice of surname for a child did not apply in situations where the parties were previously married and the child was born in wedlock.” The appellate division stirred up controversy when it remanded the case to the trial Court directing it to use the best interest Gubernat factors, “without applying a presumption in favor of mother, the child’s primary caretaker.” To confuse the matter, in a different case in 2012, the Appellate Court disagreed with the Emma Court stating that the presumption has nothing to do with whether the child was born in or out of wedlock. The drama continues and the final result awaits to be seen as the Emma v. Evans matter was granted certiorari to be heard by the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

Our attorneys are experienced in family law and ready to answer your inquiries. Contact an attorney with Iandoli & Edens, LLC at 908.879.9499 or click onto www.iandoliedens.com for more information about how you can change your minor’s name or successfully challenge a name-change application.

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