The court in Sacklow v Betts very recently encountered the issue of a legal name change in NJ for a transgender child. In this case, the Plaintiff (Sacklow) petitioned the court to change their only child’s name from Veronica Betts to Trevor Adam Betts. The plaintiff argued that the name change was in the child’s best interest because the child is transgender, identifies as male and was undergoing treatment for gender dysphoria. Before puberty, Trevor had been a quintessential tomboy. But during puberty, he changed – he did poorly in school, began engaging in minor criminal enterprises such as vandalizing school property, and fighting. Given the drastic change in his behavior, Trevor was referred to a psychological team, who with their help, he announced that he was transgender and identified as male. At the age of 12, he began requesting that he be referred to as Trevor, rather than Veronica, and from that day forward, his wishes were respected. In fact, the only people who continued to call him Veronica were his father, his stepmother and his step-siblings. Because Trevor felt that this name better reflected his identity, he requested a legal name change.
The court in Sacklow v Betts provides a succinct overview in the procedural aspects of acquiring a legal name change in NJ for a child. An application must be filed by first filing a verified complaint which sets out the reasons why the child is requesting a name change. It should include the child’s date of birth, and also notify the court that the application is not filed in order to defraud creditors, avoid prosecution, or for other illegitimate reasons. The complaint should also include whether or not the child has been involved in some sort of delinquency. If they have, then the complaint needs to be clear on the nature of the crime and punishment. To that end, of course the complaint should include if the child is currently facing delinquency charges. There are additional requirements if the child is part of a family law action, or had been part of one within three years before filing the complaint. In the instant case, there were no errors on the face of the complaint.
The court then had to consider what the standard of review was in order to change a child’s name. For this, the court looked to case precedent, and used the factors set forth in prior cases when courts were determining whether a parent’s application to change their child’s name should be used. In the cases prior, the only change at hand was the child’s surname, unlike in the instant case, where the first name was at issue. The main consideration for a court in granting a legal name change in NJ for a minor is whether it is in their best interest. This is the paramount consideration of the court for any issue dealing with a minor – to keep their best interest at the center of all inquiries. In arriving at what the best interest of the child is, the court must consider the length of time the child has used his or her given surname; the identification of the child with a family unit; any potential anxiety or discomfort that may result from having a different surname from their custodial parent; the child’s preference (if they are old enough); any parental misconduct or neglect; the degree of community respect (or lack thereof) associated with either parent’s name; improper motivation on the part of the parent who is requesting the name change; whether the mother has changed, or intends to change her name in the future, upon marriage; the quality of the relationship between the child and any siblings with different names; whether the surname has important ties to the child’s family heritage or ethnic identity; and finally, the ultimate effect changing the name will have on the relationship between parent and child. The parent who wishes to change their child’s name must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the change is in the child’s best interest.
When it comes to transgender people, the law is often not helpful when they request a legal name change in NJ. In the past, courts would not allow a name change of a transgender person without proof of gender reassignment surgery – something that has since gone by the wayside. Compound this with the fact that Trevor is a minor, and things become more difficult. If Trevor were an adult, the burden would be much lower. However, because he is a minor whose parents disagree on whether or not he should be allowed a name change, the court must now make a determination of whether such a change is in Trevor’s best interest. By law, in NJ, children are unable to make decisions concerning their own name change or even consent to gender reassignment surgery. However, in light of the fact that courts must step in to resolve disputes between parents concerning the well-being of their minor children, the court recognized that the state of NJ has an interest in protecting both the physical and psychological well-being of its children – including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. A name change was determined to be crucial in helping a transgender child to begin to fully transition, and avoid embarrassment from using a name that does not match his or her gender.
In the instant case, the court found that Trevor, being nearly 17, was of sufficient age and maturity that he could express his opinion as to a legal name change in NJ. He has used his chosen name of Trevor for 5 years – significant when he is only 16. The third factor of the potential anxiety felt by the child from having a name that does not correspond to his outward appearance was most compelling for the court in the instant case. It relied upon multiple studies showing that transgender teens are at particular risk for bullying, harassment, and at its worst, has led to suicide and suicidal ideations. Trevor has received therapy both as a result from his own suicidal ideations and to address his gender dysphoria, and the court was convinced that Trevor was committed to living life as a male individual. It was clear that Trevor was not attempting to defraud creditors or avoid prosecution, but simply change his name in pursuit of personal happiness. While he could wait until the age of 18, when the burden of proof was much lower, Trevor testified that because he would be getting legal documents such as a driver’s license and passport, as well as applying for college and taking SAT’s, he wanted his legal name to reflect his true identity. In light of all these factors, the court determined that requiring him to keep the name ‘Veronica’ would not be in his best interest, and allowed him to change his name to Veronica.
Getting a legal name change in NJ for a minor child certainly requires more steps and considerations than someone over the age of 18; however, the courts in New Jersey carefully contemplate a myriad of factors to determine if doing so is in the best interest of the child. If you have any questions concerning legal name changes in your family law matter, call the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen for a free consultation at (201) 845-7400.