In Case You Missed It – NJ Superior Court Tackles Transgender Child’s Name Change in a Case of First Impression

On June 28, 2017, the Committee on Opinions approved the Hon. Marcia Silva, J.S.C.’s decision for publication in Sacklow v. Betts . The matter was decided on March 17, 2017, when the Court approved Janet Sacklow’s application to change the name of her transgender child from Veronica Betts to Trevor Adam Betts, as she found the name change would be in the child’s best interests. At the time of the initial application, the Defendant, Richard Betts, opposed the request. Through the course of the litigation, however, Mr. Betts reconsidered his position and consented to permit his son to formally change his name.

While the New Jersey Courts have previously addressed the issue of whether to change a child’s surname (See Gubernat v. Deremer, 140 N.J. 120 (1995) and Emma v. Evans, 215 N.J. 107 (2013)), Sacklow v. Betts is the first time that the Court has been asked to determine whether a transgender child’s name should be changed.

Although Mr. Betts eventually consented to the name change, the Court still wrote a comprehensive opinion which sets forth the appropriate standard for review (it should be noted that the consent of the parents is but one factor in the Court’s analysis) in cases such as this, where a minor child is transgender and seeks to assume a name they believe corresponds to the gender with which they identify. The Court created a list of factors that should be considered in informing whether the requested name change would be in the child’s best interest, as follows:

  1. The age of the child;
  2. The length of time the child has used the preferred name;
  3. Any potential anxiety, embarrassment or discomfort that may result from the child having a name he or she believes does not match his or her outward appearance and gender identity;
  4. The history of any medical or mental health counseling the child has received;
  5. The name the child is known by in his or her family, school, and community;
  6. The child’s preference and motivations for seeking the name change;
  7. Whether both parents consent to the name change, and if consent is not given, the reason for withholding consent.

In the instant case, the Court analyzed the facts against the above factors to determine if a name change would be in the child’s best interest. Trevor was sixteen (16) when the initial application was filed, and was about to turn seventeen (17) when the opinion was issued, and thus was felt to have sufficient maturity that the Court should give his opinion “great weight.” He had been going by the name “Trevor” since he was twelve (12) years old, which was approximately five (5) years, which was a significant portion of his life. The Court reviewed various studies and reports which demonstrate that transgender youth “are bullied and harassed at an alarming rate” and reinforces the fear that Trevor will be bullied or harassed if his name is not changed from Veronica. The Court took judicial notice of the fact that gender identity was included as a category to be included in the existing federal hate crimes law.  Furthermore, the testimony during the trial revealed that he had been hospitalized on at least two (2) occasions due to suicidal ideations. The child received medical treatment and medical counseling for five (5) years to address his gender dysphoria. By and large, his school and community address him as “Trevor” – essentially everyone except those in his father’s household. The child’s preference and motives were personal in nature and not for nefarious reasons, like attempting to avoid criminal prosecution. He desired to have his name match his appearance and outward identity. As stated previously, the parties both ultimately consented to the name change.

Finally, the Judge reasoned that Trevor has “undergone hormone therapy and presents as a young man with facial hair, a muscular build, a head full of male textured hair, a deeper voice. To force him to legally keep the feminine name ‘Veronica’ would not be in his best interest.”

While every case is going to be fact-specific, it is gratifying to know that we now have a roadmap to help us address the issue of a transgender child’s possible name change. It is anticipated that there will be an increase in this type of litigation in the family court now that Sacklow v. Betts has paved the way for transgender youth in New Jersey. This will be a continually evolving area as more cases come through the Court.