Over the past twenty years that I have been practicing family law in New Jersey, the concept of a nuclear family has drastically changed. In the old days, the family consisted of a mother and a father, and their children. However, this is not necessarily the case anymore. Today, same sex marriage is allowed in New Jersey. Therefore, children may have two mothers or two fathers. Additionally, not only has the divorce rate has gone up over the years, but also many divorcees are remarrying. When that is the case, the children are introduced to stepparents, yet another way the classic nuclear family has been altered. Moreover, as a New Jersey family lawyer, I understand that the nuclear family has been modified by some of the changes of psychological parents in New Jersey child custody law. Let’s explore.
A psychological parent is a person with a close relationship to the child that basically assumes the role of a parent. He or she fulfills a child’s needs and provides the necessary support so that the child’s best interests are met. Sometimes, psychological parents easily take on this role with the natural parents’ blessing. However, this is not always the case. In the most recent Appellate Division case of K.A.F. v. D.L.M., the court addressed the issue of whether a child’s natural parents must consent to a third party asserting that he or she is a psychological parent to the child.
In the case, K.A.F. and F.D. were female partners romantically involved with each other since 1998. In 2000, the couple bought a home together and decided to have a child. The women obtained a sperm donor and decided that K.A.F. would carry the child. In 2002, the child, Arthur, was born. In June of 2004, the women began to live separately. While separated, the women agreed to equal parenting time with their child and joint decision making as to his care and wellbeing. In March of 2005, F.D. formally adopted Arthur; K.A.F. consented. By November 2005, Arthur’s birth certificate was issued listing K.A.F. and F.D. as his parents.
While separated, K.A.F. became involved with another woman, D.LM. In the fall of 2004, they moved in together and in 2006 formalized their domestic partnership. D.L.M. asserted that she and K.A.F. “equally share parental responsibility” for Arthur when he was living in their home. D.L.M. was active in Arthur’s life; however, K.A.F. stated that D.L.M’s role in Arthur’s life did not rise to the level of a parent like she had claimed. Furthermore, F.D. claimed that she “adamantly and wholeheartedly opposed D.L.M’s attempts to parent Arthur.”
In 2010, D.L.M. moved out of the home she and K.A.F. had purchased together. Even though the couple had split, D.L.M. continued to be active in Arthur’s life. She had regular visits with him, including weekly overnight stays. In November 2011, this situation concluded, however, when D.L.M. and K.A.F. had gotten into a large fight. Their domestic partnership was dissolved. In January 2012, K.A.F. advised D.L.M. that she was cutting off all contact between her and Arthur. This writing ultimately prompted D.L.M. to file a complaint seeking joint custody of Arthur and a reasonable visitation schedule. K.A.F. and F.D. opposed the complaint and the trial judge agreed to dismiss the complaint. D.L.M. appealed. The New Jersey Appellate Division therefore had to decided the issue “where there are two fit and involved parents, must both consent to the creation of a psychological parent relationship before a third party can maintain an action for visitation and custody based on the existence of that relationship.”
On appeal, the New Jersey Appellate Court reversed the findings of the lower court. It held that is was necessary to first determine whether D.L.M. was a psychological parent to Arthur and if so, whether the child’s best interests required accommodation through a sharing of custody and visitation between K.A.F. and D.L.M. By allowing D.L.M. to assume a parental role with Arthur, F.D. and K.A.F. had consented to her becoming a psychological parent to their child. The New Jersey Appellate Division held that explicit consent was not necessary by the parties.
As you can see, determining whether a third-party has become a psychological parent is very fact-specific. If you believe that you have assumed such a role or are involved in a situation where a third party is asserting psychological parenthood, please do not hesitate to contact my office today. Thank you.