We have a motto at my New Jersey based law firm: Kids First. As the lawyers at my office only handle divorce and child custody matters, we embrace that titles and roles in divorced or non-intact families are often a breeding ground for conflict after a divorce is finalized or a couple breaks up. When one parent moves on and remarries, the other biological parent often feels uncomfortable with the child’s relationship with his/her stepparent. Even if the relationship between the step-parent and the child is a positive one, the biological parent may take issue with the same and conflicts often arise. Divorce and child custody attorneys understand that two common conflicts arise in a step-parent/ child relationship is the child calling the stepparent mom or dad in addition to the stepparent’s role in raising the child. His is certainly not only true in New Jersey, but nation wide as well.

While a biological parent may feel a certain way about their child having a close enough relationship with their step-parent that they call them mom or dad, the New Jersey Court has spoken with regard to how address this issue as well as the question of a step-parent’s roll in a child’s life. Not surprisingly the answer is much more common sense than one may have thought. Essentially New Jersey judges, lawyers and child custody experts instruct parents to put their egos aside and as always do what is in the best interest of the child. After all, a title is just a title and the same does not change a relationship between a child and their active biological parent. In short, if your child is close enough to his/her step-parent and is old enough to understand the difference between their step-parent and biological parent, you should not interfere if they voluntarily refer to the step-parent as mom or dad. The same does not mean they do not love you as a parent or that they do not value the relationship you have. It means that this new adult is treating your child well and that the child feels the same and is reciprocating the treatment with mutual affection.

In the case of B.S. v. T.S. the biological parents of Daniel, an 8 year old boy, engaged in a year long post-divorce battle because Daniel began referring to his step-mother, Lori, as mom. Daniel’s biological parents were divorce in 2010 and Daniel is an only child. The parties share joint legal custody of Daniel with Daniel’s father (the Plaintiff) having primary residential custody. Both of Daniel’s parents are very involved in carrying for Daniel and play positive roles in his life. Daniel has a very close and loving relationship with both his mother and father.

After the divorce, Daniel’s father developed a relationship and subsequently got engaged to Lori. Lori is also divorced and has three young children from a prior marriage. Daniel’s father and Lori live together with her three young children and Daniel. The Court found the relationship between the Plaintiff and Lori to be stable and healthy. Considering the Plaintiff and Lori have been living together for a long period of time they not only share finances but assist each other in caring for the four children, irrespective of who the biological parent of the child is. Daniel also has a close relationship with Lori’s three children, as the four children are living together.

Lori is very involved with Daniel. She helps him with his homework and watches him when his biological parents may be working and not exercising parenting time. Given the warm and loving relationship Daniel formed with Lori over time he began calling her mom, even though he understood she was his step-mother. It is important to note that despite calling Lori mom, he continued to have a strong relationship with his biological mother and always addressed her as mom as well. The Plaintiff and Lori stated that this development was natural and was not at anyone’s direction or insistence. Of course Daniel’s biological mother objected to Daniel calling his step-mother “mom” and believes Lori is intruding on her relationship with Daniel. Daniel’s mother also objects to Lori participating in any significant decisions involving Daniel and believes that any and all decisions regarding Daniel must only be made by the biological parents. Daniel’s mother believes Lori has no place in the process of child rearing when it comes to Daniel.

The Judge conducted an interview with Daniel and determined that the child had a wonderful relationship with not only his mother and father, but also with his step-mother and that all three play an important role in his life. The Judge also determined that Daniel easily differentiates between his mother and step-mother and that there is no confusion on who his real mother is. The Judge found that Daniel naturally began calling Lori “mom” and that he was not forced to do so.

Thus, the Court held that:

“When two parents divorce and one remarries, a child may wish to call a step-parent either by first name, or by “Mom” or “Dad”, or a derivative of these words. In this case, where the child is of sufficient age and maturity to distinguish between his or her biological parent and step-parent, the choice of which way to address the step-parent belongs to the child, and not to either parent. Neither parent may force the child to either call a step-parent “Mom” or Dad” against the child’s will, or forbid the child from doing so.”

Therefore, if your child decides that they want to refer to their step-parent as mom or dad, it does not mean that there will be a detrimental effect on the relationship with the biological parent. Think about why your child may want to refer to their step-parent as mom or dad. For example as with Daniel if there are other children in the household referring to an adult as mom or dad, the child may want to do the same so they fit in. Also, the child may feel very close to their step-parent and may use the term as affection, the way adults often refer to their in-laws as “mom” and “dad”.

The Judge went on to say that “all too often, titles and symbols become the basis for wholly unnecessary and disproportionate battles between otherwise reasonable people.” Further, one must always remember that “the strength of a child’s relationship with his or her biological parents rest on far more than surface labels, or how a child personally wishes to address a step-parent or any other third person.

With regard to the issue of what role a step-parent plays in the child’s upbringing the Court held that:

“If a child calls a step-parent “Mom” or Dad, this action does not turn the step-parent into the parent. When two divorced and active parents share joint legal custody of a child, all major parenting decisions are to be made by the parents, and not by a step-parent. A step-parent, however, may assist the parent with whom he or she is partnered in helping raise a child, and in such capacity may potentially play an important, ongoing and positive role in the child’s upbringing and life.”

The Court recognizes that a step-parent is not legally equal to a parent, however, this does not mean a step-parent in unimportant to the child’s happiness and best interests. The reality is that biological parents must recognize that a step-parent will have a role in the child’s life and will be involved in the day to day aspects of child rearing. Denying this fact will be contrary to the best interest of a child because it will result in two battling biological parents that cannot amicably work together. A step-parent is there to assist the parent who is his/her spouse or partner, when such assistance is welcomed or needed. A step-parent being involved and active with the child will does not mean he/she is impairing or intruding on the biological relationship the child has with the biological parent. As long as a step-parent does not attempt to obstruct or impair the role of the biological parent, there should be a place for the step-parent’s participation and love in the child’s life. While the step-parent will not have independent authority to make major decisions they can assist in parental duties. Biological parents should encourage such relationships rather than hinder them based on their own feelings and should always do what is best for the child. The most important thing to remember is how fighting over trivial issues like titles or a step-parent’s involvement will affect a child. One must understand that when a divorce occurs there is a need for mutual respect and cooperation and this is what the New Jersey Court has held to be most important.

If you are confronted with issues regarding stepparents and your children, please contact my office to learn how we may help you and your kids. Kids first!