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Haas v. Wilson

Superior Court of Delaware

March 25, 2019

BRITANNY HAAS, Petitioner-Below, Appellant,
v.
STANLEY WILSON, Respondent-Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: January 2, 2019

          Upon an Appeal from the Decision of the Kent County Court of Common Pleas Reversed and Remanded.

          Sean M. Lynn, Esquire of The Law Offices of Sean M. Lynn, P. A., Dover, Delaware; attorney for Appellant.

          Tiffany M. Shrenk, Esquire of MacElree Harvey, Ltd., Centreville, Delaware; attorney for Appellee.

          ORDER

          WILLIAM L. WITHAM. JR. RESIDENT JUDGE.

         INTRODUCTION

         Before the Court is Appellant Brittany Haas' (hereinafter "Appellant")[1] appeal of the Kent County Court of Common Pleas' (hereinafter "Court of Common Pleas" or "court") denial of her petition to change her son's surname by hyphenating it with her new married name.

         For the reasons that follow, the Court of Common Pleas erred as a matter of law in denying the Appellant's petition to hyphenate her son's surname to the mom's previously existing surname because it analyzed the petition under the combined standards of "best interest of the child" and Section 5904(b), Title 10 of the Delaware Code, rather than section 5904(b) solely, as our Legislature has intended. As a consequence, this Court REVERSES and REMANDS this case to the Court of Common Pleas, where it shall apply the correct standard pursuant to section 5904(b).

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         1. On March 22, 2018, the Appellant filed a petition in the Court of Common Pleas seeking to hyphenate her son, Channing's, given surname "Wilson," with her new married surname "Haas."[2] The Appellant complied with all applicable statutory and court rules.

         2. Stanley Wilson, Channing's natural father, however, opposed the Petition.

         3. At the hearing held in the Court of Common Pleas, the court heard testimony from the Appellant, Appellee, and Channing's stepmother, Megan Mullen. From that testimony, the Court discerns the following.

         4. Channing's parents were married in January 2010. During their five plus year marriage, the Appellant chose to keep her maiden surname Mills and at all times during the marriage, the Appellee's surname has been Wilson.

         5. Channing, the Appellant and Appellee's only child, was born during the marriage on August 21, 2012, and was given the same surname as his father.

         6. The Appellant and Appellee separated in 2013 and divorced in 2015.

         7. The Appellant remarried and continued to use her surname of Mills until approximately a year and a half into her second marriage, when she changed her surname to her husband's surname, Haas.

         8. To date, the Appellant has never had the same surname as Channing.

         9. Custody and placement of Channing is governed by a custody order entered by the Delaware Family Court. Under the order, the Appellant has primary placement of Channing, and the Appellee has visitation with him every other weekend, three weeks over the summer, and alternating holidays. The Appellee, has maintained his visitation with Channing except when deployed or at required military training.

         10. At the hearing, the Appellant testified as to the reasons why she wanted to hyphenate Channing's surname to Wilson-Haas. First, the Appellant contended that the change would benefit Channing by helping him better fit into the Haas family. As a byproduct, the Appellant stated her belief that the name change would bring Channing closer to both the Wilson and Haas families, despite the fact that Channing will still have a different surname then the rest of the Haas family. The Appellant further asserted that Charming's surname as presently constituted presented problems with scheduling Channing's medical appointments and negatively impacted her interactions with doctors because she was asked multiple times, over a five year period, what her relationship was to Channing.

         11. The crux of the Appellee's testimony was his belief that Channing is confused by the proposed name change and does not understand what his name is or means. The Appellee testified that he currently does not have sufficient visitation to counteract the Appellant's and her husband's attempts to disrupt his relationship with Channing[3] and that the Appellant has blocked virtually all his attempts to seek an alteration of the visitation schedule by placing conditions that the Appellee must agree.[4] The Appellee further testified that Channing has referred to him as "Stanley," instead of "Daddy," which he believed was directly encouraged by both the Appellant and her husband and was causing his relationship with Channing to suffer.[5]

         12. Ms. Mullen, the wife of the Appellee, echoed the Appellee's testimony regarding the Appellant and her husband's attempts to damage the Appellee and Channing's relationship, but provided some evidence to back her belief. She specifically stated that Charming started addressing the Appellee as "Stanley," after Appellant's relocation petition had been denied. She also testified regarding specific examples of Channing's confusion regarding his present name and stated that Channing had never confused his name until the Appellant's most recent petition. She further testified that since the petition was filed, Channing has directly stated to her that his "mommy got [him] a brand new name" that was Wilson-Haas.

         13. The Court of Common Pleas issued a bench order directly after the hearing testimony and denied the Appellant's petition. In denying the petition, the court analyzed the evidence based on the ten factors that followed the "best interest of the child" legal standard.

         14. On April 20, 2018, nine days after the court's verbal order, the court issued an Amended Order. In the Amended Order, the court recognized the "[c]ourt did not fully address the recent addition of [10] Del. C. § 5409, which includes a separate provision for cases where a petition requests a hyphenation of a child's name."[6]

         15. Accordingly, the court, in its Amended Order, reconsidered the section 5409(b) factors, but instead of an analysis based on those four factors alone, the court held that "[the Appellee], has in addition to showing that granting the petition is not in the child's best interest, has shown by clear and convincing evidence, that the totality of the four factors demonstrated that granting the name change petition would cause the minor child more harm than benefit."[7] As a result, the court again denied the Appellant's petition to hyphenate Channing's surname.

         16. The Appellant filed a Notice of Appeal in this Court on April 23, 2018, appealing the Court of Common ...


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