by: Deena L. Betze, Esquire
The issue of when or how divorced parents may introduce new, significant others to the children and what input the other parent may have in that decision is a thorny one. Until recently, the only decision on point was the 1976 case of DeVita v. DeVita, 145 N.J. Super. 120 (App. Div. 1976), which upheld a restriction banning a father from having his female companion spend the night during his parenting time. The phrase, “DeVita restriction” was coined to describe the ability for family courts to limit or restrict the amount of exposure or contact children can have with the significant other of their divorced parents that resulted.
In Mantle v. Mantle, 20-4-7530, the Hon. Lawrence Jones, J.S.C. of Ocean County Superior Court recently addressed this issue in the context of our more modern society. In Mantle, the court found that the DeVita decision does not specifically mean that exposure to a parent’s new dating partner is per se inappropriate or harmful to the child’s welfare, but rather, that such matters must be looked at on a case by case basis. Absent any evidence of inappropriate conduct by a dating partner toward the child, an indefinite “no-contact” provision would not be held enforceable. In that particular case, the court established a one-year transitional schedule for the gradual introduction of the significant other to the child.
In holding indefinite “DeVita restrictions” unenforceable without evidence of harmful conduct toward the child, Judge Jones pondered the social viability of such open-ended restrictions in today’s society. The court did not rule out short-term restrictions designed to protect the child, but rather, placed the focus on the best interests of the child in terms of gradually introducing them to a parent’s new partner. Judge Jones noted that in 1976, societal values were very different than they are in 2015 and it was a commonly held belief that exposure to such visits could harm the “moral welfare” of a child. But, such views are not necessarily shared by a majority of the community today. According to the court, “Sociologically speaking, 1976 was a million years ago. Given the overwhelming number of couples from all walks of life who presently live together full-time without the benefit of marriage, the landscape has changed drastically since the long gone days of the bicentennial.”
To balance the need to protect the emotional welfare of children and also realistically approach today’s societal norms, the court set forth factors to be considered when a “DeVita restraint” is sought, including how long the parties have been separated (living apart), the age of the child in question, how long the parent and new partner have been dating, whether that partner is already known to the child, and whether the child has an existing psychological or emotional issue that might require special consideration. In the event a dating partner presents a threat to a child through inappropriate actions, a blanket restriction against contact may still be appropriate. In any case, the focus should always remain on what is in the best interests of the child.