On October 5, 2018, the Appellate Division handed down a decision in W.A.D. v. R.M.C., a case that was appealed from Essex County Superior Court, Family Division.
Plaintiff and Defendant met in 2009 and shortly thereafter began an intimate relationship. By autumn of 2009, Defendant moved into Plaintiff’s single-family home in West Orange. In 2011, the parties’ relationship deteriorated because Defendant wanted to have children, but Plaintiff did not. Defendant moved out of Plaintiff’s home, but the parties remained in contact. Defendant became a licensed foster parent during that time.
On December 3, 2011, a child (G.M.) was born, and the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) contacted Defendant and advised her that the child could be placed with her immediately. That month, Plaintiff and Defendant picked up G.M. from the hospital together, and all three began living in Plaintiff’s home in West Orange. The parties agreed that the child would call Plaintiff “Mamma” and Defendant “Mommy.” Two years later, in 2013, the parties found out that G.M. had a brother who was also available for adoption. Defendant wanted to adopt G.M.’s brother; Plaintiff did not. The parties’ relationship once again deteriorated. Notwithstanding the parties’ failing relationship, they both agreed that they wanted to adopt G.M. However, given the fact they were a same-sex couple, they believed that the process would be delayed, and as such, they agreed that G.M.’s adoption would be in Defendant’s name ONLY, and that Plaintiff’s would go through the process at a later date. Defendant formally adopted G.M. on November 11, 2013 (while still residing in Plaintiff’s home).
In 2014, the parties ended their relationship. In June of 2014, Defendant began dating another individual (referred to by the initials C.M.C. in court documents), then moved out of Plaintiff’s residence and moved to Union County, into the C.M.C.’s residence. At that time, G.M. was a few months shy of his 3rd birthday.
In June 2015, Plaintiff filed an application in Essex County Superior Court seeking joint legal and physical custody of G.M., as well as seeking to have her name placed on G.M.’s birth certificate and to have G.M.’s last name hyphenated to reflect both parents’ surnames. The Court entered an Order scheduling a trial, temporarily granting Defendant sole legal and residential custody, appointing a Guardian ad Litem for G.M., and appointing an expert to determining whether there was a psychological bond between Plaintiff and G.M. Plaintiff soon thereafter amended her pleadings to seek an order designating her as G.M.’s parent of primary residence (PPR).
In July 2015 Defendant married C.M.C. In November 2015, Plaintiff filed a complaint for adoption of G.M. in Essex County. Coincidentally (or not) that same month, C.M.C. filed a complaint for adoption of G.M. in Union County. C.M.C.’s complaint for adoption was ultimately dismissed and she was ordered to pay Plaintiff $26,000 in counsel fees. The Court awarded the fees because (among other things) C.M.C. failed to advise Union County Court that the child she sought to adopt was the subject of custody litigation that had been pending in Essex County for several months.
The parties’ trial in Essex County commenced on May 10, 2016 and concluded on September 23, 2018. Judge Craig Harris presided over the trial and rendered an opinion on November 18, 2016. Judge Harris’ Order set forth that Plaintiff had met the criteria in V.C. v. M.J.B. to be deemed a psychological parent to G.M. (163 N.J. 223 (2000)). He also found that it was in G.M.’s best interests for Plaintiff to be designated as PPR. Plaintiff’s request to be placed on G.M.’s birth certificate, as well as her request to hyphenate G.M.’s last name to reflect both parties’ surnames were also granted.
Defendant filed a motion for reconsideration of the court’s November 18, 2016 Order. Her motion was denied. Thereafter, Defendant appealed the orders on several grounds, the most important of which were the contention that the court erred in finding that Plaintiff was a psychological parent to G.M., and that the Court erred in ordering joint legal custody with Plaintiff as the PPR.
The Appellate Court affirmed the trial judge’s findings and rulings. The Appellate Court echoed reiterated one of the tenets from V.C., which states that “the psychological parenting doctrine is based on the ‘recognition that children have a strong interest in maintaining the ties that connect them to adults who love and provide for them.’” The Court outright rejected Defendant’s arguments that proper weight was not afforded to her status as an adoptive parent. The Court stated that once an individual is deemed to be a psychological parent to a child, they stand “in parity with the legal parent” and that the standard deciding custody and visitation issues in that regard is “best interests of the child” in accordance with N.J.S.A. 9:2-4.
The Appellate Division also rejected the following several arguments Defendant made, which were nothing more than attacks on Plaintiff’s style of parenting (such as referring to Plaintiff as a babysitter, and a playful caretaker). The Appellate Division instead focused on the abundance of proof in the record that Defendant was a deeply uncooperative co-parent and did things such as:
- Failing to provide Plaintiff with information regarding G.M.’s medical providers (on several occasions)
- Unilaterally removing the child from his school district
- Registering the child in a new school
- Denying Plaintiff parenting time during the holiday
- Refusing to allow the child to participate in activities with Plaintiff’s family
- Disparaging Plaintiff on social media
- Moving several times in a short time span (contrasted with Plaintiff remaining at the same residence for 15 years)
The Appellate Division recounted expert witness testimony that stated that the degree of vitriol coming from Defendant was affecting G.M. and” had the potential to cause him to sustain significant and lasting harm.”
The trial court’s admonishment of Defendant’s refusal to co-parent, as well as the Appellate Division’s affirmation of the trial court’s decision should serve as a warning to parents in ugly custody battles; acting as a child’s only parent, and making unilateral decisions with respect to the health, education and general welfare of the child, can and will (and should!) backfire in a custody trial.