NJ Superior Court Judge Marcia L. Silva, sitting in Middlesex County, recently ruled on a case of first impression regarding when a transgender minor child may change their name. The case is Sacklow v. Betts (FM-12-1502-07C) and the case was published by the court on June 28, 2017 — meaning the case is precedential.
Janet Sacklow and Richard Betts married in 1996 and divorced in 2001. They had one child, born female and named Veronica but transitioned to male and the name Trevor Adam, now sixteen years old. (The parties requested that the court use their actual names, which is generally not the case when minors are involved.) The parties have joint custody of Trevor with the mother as the parent of primary residence.
As Trevor aged, he was eventually diagnosed with gender dysphoria (a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify.) The decision contains much more of the details of Veronica’s transition to Trevor Adam. The parties came back to court to request a legal name change for Trevor. Trevor’s father was not necessarily opposed to the name change but did question whether the name change was in Trevor’s best interests. Trevor’s mother asked the court to make an independent determination regardless of the father’s consent.
As with most things regarding minors in a divorce or non-married parental relationship, the court found that the best interests of the child guided and set forth the following factors for a transgender name change:
- The age of the child;
- The length of time the child has used the preferred name;
- Any potential anxiety, embarrassment or discomfort that may result from the child having a name he or she believes does not match his or her outward appearance and gender identity;
- The history of any medical or mental health counseling the child has received;
- The name the child is known by in his or her family, school and community;
- The child’s preference and motivations for seeking the name change;
- Whether both parents consent to the name change, and if consent is not given.
Obviously, parents have been in court before arguing over whether a child’s name can be changed (usually to the surname of the other parent or for remarriage). The cases that guide on that aspect are Gubernat v. Deremer, 140 N.J. 120 (1995) and Emma v. Evans, 215 N.J. 197 (2013). In Gubernat, the court established the following factors for a name change request (absent transgender being a factor):
- The length of time the child has used his or her given surname;
- The identification of the child with a particular family unit;
- Potential anxiety, embarrassment or discomfort that may result from having a different surname from that of the custodial parent;
- The child’s preference if the child is mature enough to express a preference;
- Parental misconduct or neglect, such as failure to provide support or maintain contact with the child;
- Degree of community respect, or lack thereof, associated with either paternal or maternal name;
- Improper motivation on the part of the parent seeking the name change;
- Whether the mother has changed or intends to change her name upon remarriage;
- Whether the child has a strong relationship with any siblings with different names;
- Whether the surname has important ties to family heritage or ethnic identity; and
- The effect of a name change on the relationship between the child and each parent.
The party requesting the change must prove (by a preponderance of the evidence) that the change is in the best interest of the child.
With changes in society, cases like this will become more common and parents now have more guidance regarding a transgender minor child’s name change. I do discuss child name changes with my clients. If this is an issue, be sure to bring it up with your divorce professionals.
Sacklow v. Betts