Just about a year ago, the New Jersey Appellate Division considered an appeal regarding a same-sex couple granted joint legal custody. Unsatisfied with the decision by the appeals court, one of the parties filed a petition for certification with the New Jersey Supreme Court. However, the state’s highest court declined consideration of the case.
Although W.A.D. v. R.M.C. involves a same-sex couple, it also provides some valuable insight to stepparents or others who have not adopted or are biologically related to children with whom they have parental relationships.
Notably, the court used initials in place of the names of both parties. This acts as a means of protecting the identities of the children and their mothers. Also, the court stresses that this legal opinion “shall not constitute precedent or be binding upon any court.”
What does the latter mean exactly? The court’s decision applies specifically to W.A.D. and R.M.C., as parties to the appeal. However, it does not provide a novel approach to an issue. That said, the written opinion represents an interesting read as to how the court looks at “unrelated” individuals when it comes to the custody of minor children.
Psychological Parents and Joint Legal Custody
As you might already know, biological and adoptive parents are considered equal under the law. In family court, this pertains to both custody and parenting time. When it comes to rights regarding inheritance, the court also looks upon adopted children as having the same relationship of biological offspring.
In the meantime, New Jersey courts recognize that a child could have a bond with another individual who has stepped in and acted as a mother or father. You might be viewed as a psychological parent based on the role you played in a child’s life. Truth be told, this distinction has a great deal to do with the decision made by the court in W.A.D. and R.M.C.
First, consider this brief history concerning the background of the case. R.M.C. is a licensed practical nurse who met W.A.D. when she took care of W.A.D.’s mother in a nursing facility. From all appearances, the two never married. However, they ultimately began an intimate personal relationship.
R.M.C. began living with W.A.D. in the latter’s single-family home in West Orange. The couple met in 2009 and moved together during the fall of that same year. A couple of years later, there seemed to be problems in the couple’s relationship. Subsequently, in the spring of 2011, R.M.C. moved to Clark. Apparently, one of the issues centered on W.A D.’s. reluctance to have children, and R.M.C. wanted them.
Although they lived in separate homes for short time, R.M.C. and W.A.D. remained in contact. Within a matter of months, R.M.C. decided to move back to West Orange.
Child Finds the Couple Back Together
In July of 2011. R.M.C. went through a training program required by the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) for licensing foster parents. In December, R.M.C. learned of the birth of a baby who was available for placement in foster care. The Appellate Division used the initials G.M. to identify the baby.
W.A.D. accompanied R.M.C. to the hospital to pick up the newborn, and they all returned to live in the W.A.D.’s home. The State had already certified the house as a resource home.
At the onset, both parties assigned themselves parental names. They decided that G.M. would refer to W.A.D. as “Mama.” In turn, R.M.C. would be “Mommy.”
A couple of years later, the two mothers received word that G.M. has a brother. In fact, DCP&P actually hoped the brothers could stay together and asked the couple to consider his adoption. Although it seemed like a good idea to R.M.C., W.A.D. did not agree. Instead, the brother’s resource parents adopted him.
In the meantime, it appears that both W.A.D. and R.M.C. wanted to adopt G.M. However, they worried that the fact that they were a same-sex couple could delay the process. Accordingly, the two mothers decided that R.M.C. would adopt the child first. Later, they planned for W.A.D. to add her name. R.M.C. formally adopted G.M. in November of 2013. At the time. the three lived together in the West Orange home.
Nevertheless, the disagreement regarding G.M.’s brother’s adoption upset the couple’s relationship. According to the court’s recitation of the facts in the matter, W.A.D. encouraged R.M.C. to start dating others.
After a few months into a relationship with someone referred to as C.M.C., R.M.C. moved in with C.M.C. The relocation took place in August 2014.
Action for Joint Legal and Physical Custody
A little less than a year after R.M.C. moved from West Orange, W.A.D. filed papers with the court, seeking the following:
- Joint Legal and Physical Custody of G.M.
- Addition of her name to G.M.’s birth certificate
- Hyphenation of G.M.’s last name to include surnames of both mothers
In response, the court filed a plenary hearing and temporarily granted R.M.C. legal and residential custody. Additionally, the judge appointed guardian ad litem to speak on behalf of G.M.’s interest, as well as a doctor to determine the existence of a psychological bond between W.A.D. and the child. Lastly, the court instructed W.A.D. to deposit $40K in a fund to cover the cost of litigation.
A month after the initial court filing, W.A.D. amended her complaint. She wanted the court to name her as the Parent of Primary Residence (or PPR). The judge ordered W.A.D. to deposit an additional $40K to the cost of litigation.
After evaluating evidence at trial, the court wrote an opinion finding that W.A.D. met the criteria necessary that established her as G.M.’s psychological parent. Additionally, the judge designated W.A.D. as the PRR. Additionally, both mothers were awarded shared joint legal custody as it was in G.M.’s best interests.
The court also agreed to the balance of W.A.D.’s requests as far as the birth certificate and child’s name change.
The appeal filed by R.M.C. includes some issues not addressed in this discussion. In Point V, the Appellate Division considered R.M.C.’s contention that the lower court erred in determining that W.A.D. was G.M.’s psychological parent.
In reviewing the matter, the appeals court reviewed the accepted standards used to demonstrate the existence of a parent-like relationship. Since W.A.D. met these proofs, she was considered to “stand in parity with the legal parent.”
As far as the proofs, this included the fact that G.M. resided with W.A.D. and called her Mamma. Furthermore, both parties were initially referred to as the child’s foster parents. No one disputed that W.A.D. intended to adopt the child. Additionally, W.A.D. was very involved in the child’s life and referred to as one of the parents by school officials.
The best interests of the child proved relevant as far as joint legal custody and designating W.A.D. as PRR. For one, it appeared that R.M.C. failed to communicate and cooperate with W.A.D. as G.M.’s other parent.
Ultimately, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial court’s decision.
Could you be a psychological parent and interested in maintaining a relationship with a child? Or, has a third party asserted such a claim that could impact custody and parenting time? The Law Offices of Sam Stoia provides family law counsel on a number of issues. Give us a call to discuss your circumstances.