One New Jersey Superior Court judge has decided that a child may decide whether to call a step-parent “Mom” or “Dad” or any derivative thereof. In a very lengthy decision in B.S. v. T.S., Ocean County Judge Lawrence Jones held that the 8 year-old boy involved is mature enough to make his own decision as to what he calls his father’s live-in girlfriend, contrary to the position of the biological Mother.
Upheaval of Divorce and Grant of Power to Child
The court determined that the child’s parents’ divorce had caused enough upheaval in his life, over which he had no control whatsoever. Therefore, the court gives the child control over what he decides to call his Dad’s live-in girlfriend. The Father is engaged to the live-in girlfriend with whom the child has a very positive relationship, the trauma suffered by the child throughout the divorce and subsequent court involvement concerning the child, the fact that the girlfriend’s three children living in the boy’s household and the girlfriend’s past teaching experience all seem to come into play in the Court’s granting the child the power to make his own decision as to what to call this woman. There is no way to tell if any or all of these factors will play a part in future determinations on the issue.
The impression provided by this decision is that the parents are and were too often in court, unable to work out things without on their own. The child may well have been put him in the middle of it all. This parental behavior may well have played a role in the final determination by the court. The court made clear the positive nature of the relationship between the child, both parents and the girlfriend, expressed by the child, avoiding any impression that this decision was based upon anything lacking in the biological mother.
Constitutional Implication and Child’s First Amendment Rights: Freedom of Speech
In further support of the decision, the court goes on to discuss the constitutional rights of children to freedom of speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear, in a number of decisions, that the right to freedom of speech is not held in abeyance until a child reaches the age of majority. Children are, pursuant to the Supreme Court, and Judge Jones, born with the rights of free speech. Therefore, this boy has the right to call this woman anything he wants, within reason, based on his right to free speech and, clearly, Judge Jones is not going to stand in the way of the boy’s constitutional rights.
The Step-Parent’s Role and the Blended Household
The Father’s household was composed of the Dad, the boy, the girlfriend and the girlfriend’s three children. The boy had a sibling-like relationship with the other children who, as would be expected, called their mother “Mom.” The court took the position that the boy was, or at least could be, calling the girlfriend “Mom,” to fit in where he was part of a blended family.
Though the issue was not before the court at this time, nor was a decision made concerning it, the court, discussed the step-parent position in a family in general. The case was, in part, a lesson in how step-parents should be treated and the nature of their involvement in a family unit.
This Decision as Precedent
This is a lower court decision. Other courts are not obligated to follow it, nor are they prevented from doing so. Only time will tell if this position is accepted by other jurisdictions or withstands any appeal that may follow.
If you need to discuss a child custody issue, call the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen for a free initial consultation at 201-845-7400.