JUDGE DECLINES TO BAR CHILD FROM CALLING A FUTURE STEPPARENT "MOM"

Biological parents who do not hold primary custody of their children may struggle to watch that child grow closer to a new stepparent, and may develop concerns over that person's input in parental decision-making. Judge Lawrence Jones of the Ocean County Superior Court has ruled in one case that, while a child's parents hold the right to make ultimate decisions about a child's rearing, that parent cannot preclude their child from becoming close to new parental figures in their lives. 

The case in question, B.S. v. T.S., involved a couple that had divorced in 2010 and co-parented an eight-year-old son with health and learning difficulties. The boy's father held primary custody, and had become engaged to a woman with whom he lived. The young boy had begun to call the woman, "Mom." Additionally, the father had invited his fiancée to have more input into parental decisions for the child. The child's biological mother had objected to both of these changes, and had taken the father to court to resolve the dispute.

Judge Jones had strong words for the parents in this case and for their tendency to seek the court's intervention rather than reach an agreement between themselves. A child with divorced parents should have the right to exercise his limited autonomy to use whatever name he feels most appropriate for members of what has become his family, the judge stated. He went on to note that using one name or the other for a stepparent will not, standing alone, have a harmful effect on his relationship with his biological parent. "[A] child's preference on whether or not to call a step-parent 'Mom' or 'Dad' is generally a decision rooted deeply in the innermost emotions of a child of divorce, especially when the child's parents cannot even agree between themselves on how to provide uniform guidance on the issue." The judge went on to write that it would not improve that child's life or fragile emotional state to have a parent or judge "micromanaging his words and thoughts."

The judge went on to find that, while a stepparent may offer an opinion on decisions relevant to the child's rearing, a stepparent should not have a final say in those decisions. "[A] stepparent does not and cannot stand as a legal equal to an active parent... One does not automatically acquire parental rights and obligations toward a child merely by marrying the child's mother or father." Judge Jones ruled that the fiancée may continue to attend parent/teacher conferences and doctor's appointments as she was, but instructed that final decisions should be made only by the child's father and mother.

The judge concluded his opinion with an admonition for the child's parents to make a greater effort to reach agreements outside of court. "The court further finds that what the parties' child... truly needs and deserves, more than anything else, is for the parents to stop fighting, and to hereinafter attempt to cooperate more productively with each other."

If you are in need of an attorney to assist with your custodial dispute or divorce, contact the seasoned family law attorneys at Smith & Doran for a consultation on your claims, at 973-292-0016.

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