In the case of Mantle v. Mantle, Ocean County Family Judge Lawrence Jones voided the law governing divorcing parents’ new relationships. In 2014, both mother and father of a child agreed to an indefinite restriction on the child’s contact with future significant others (otherwise known as a “DeVita Restraint”). The next year, the mother applied to the court to enforce the restriction to prevent the father’s new girlfriend from seeing the child. Before this decision, couples could create an open-ended restriction on new relationships that prevented the parents’ new significant others from contact with the children from the former relationship. After this ruling, these long-term restrictions are unenforceable, unless there’s evidence of inappropriate behavior on the significant other’s part. Short-term restrictions are still enforceable by the courts, as long as they’re created with the child’s well-being in mind (as opposed to creating the restrictions out of spite).
In the past, “DeVita Restraints”- a term first coined in 1976- were upheld due to fears that children would suffer moral harm if they were exposed to a parent’s new, unmarried significant other too soon after a divorce. Now, as explained in Judge Jones’ decision, such blanket restrictions are no longer appropriate, especially when it could be used as a tool to “control the other party’s dating life without any legitimate reason.” To ease the transition into a more stable living environment for the child or children of separated parties who have new relationships and families, courts now look to the best interests of the child (see our previous blogs) to create a “gentle and logical progression, rather than a sudden and abrupt one.” So, for the first six months after the divorce, children can be shielded from the presence of a new significant other. Overnight stays by the new significant while the children are present can be restricted during a six to twelve-month period. After twelve-months, overnight stays can be permitted. But the plan, whether agreed-on by the parents or ordered by a judge, the plan can take into account the children’s age, the length of the former marriage, and the children’s emotional maturity. As with most areas of family law, the needs of the child come before any petty grievances of the parent-and now, the new limits on DeVita restrictions add a new element to a child’s best interests – his or her right to share in a parent’s life as he or she moves forward with new relationships. Loree Varella, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016 collaborated on this blog. She is Associate Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal and will soon serve as Managing Research Editor of that publication.