The issue presented is whether, in a post-judgment setting, a noncustodial parent should have overnight visitation in his home in the presence of an unrelated woman and her son. This court concludes that the father in this case should have such visitation.
The court makes the following factual findings: The parties were married on October 7, 1972, in New York State. At that time, Mrs. Kelly was a nurse. Dr. Kelly was in medical school. Twin boys were born October 25, 1976.
Dr. Kelly filed a complaint for divorce on June 10, 1982 based on an 18-month separation. Mrs. Kelly filed an answer and a counterclaim on July 8, 1982. The counterclaim was also based on the grounds of an 18-month separation. At the time of the divorce, Mrs. Kelly resided with the children in a condominium located in Lakewood, which was purchased jointly by the parties. Dr. Kelly resided alone in a three-bedroom home in Toms River. Dr. Kelly was dating Margaret Doherty during the separation. In October 1982, the Kelly boys were introduced to Margaret Doherty and her son, Casey.
In July 1983, the parties reached an interim agreement as to issues of custody and visitation. The agreement was not reduced to writing. On the day of trial, September 13, 1983, the parties reached a settlement of the entire case which was placed upon the record. A dual judgment of divorce was executed December 23, 1983. The transcript of the September 13, 1983 hearing was attached to the judgment.
Paragraph B of the final judgment provides:
In March 1984, Mrs. Kelly moved for modification of the final judgment seeking restraints under DeVita v. DeVita, 145 N.J.Super. 120 (App.Div. 1976), or in the alternative an interpretation that the judgment contemplated the restraints established in DeVita. In April 1984, Dr. Kelly cross-moved for a plenary hearing. On May 3, 1984, the family intake service of the Ocean County Probation Department was requested to conduct an interview. Mediation of the case was attempted without success. A court appointed psychologist was designated to conduct a psychological evaluation of the parties and advise the court of any adverse impact that overnight visitation might have on the children. A hearing was conducted after the court received the expert's report. At the hearing, Mrs. Kelly, Dr. Kelly, the psychologist and an expert engaged by Mrs. Kelly testified.
Defendant argues that the custody and visitation agreement entered into by the parties, although not specifically set forth in the final judgment, envisioned that neither party would have the children overnight in the presence of an unrelated person of the opposite sex. Mrs. Kelly testified that she and Dr. Kelly had been raised as Catholics and continued to be practicing Catholics after reaching adulthood. Therefore, Mrs. Kelly asserts, the words set forth in the final judgment mean, when read in the light of the parties' religious faith, that there shall be no overnight contact by the children with an unrelated person of the opposite sex.
Dr. Kelly testified that when the precise language limiting overnight visitation was suggested he specifically rejected the
The provisions of the final judgment were the product of agreement. Clearly, the provision dealing with the protection of the children's morals is sufficiently ambiguous to permit oral testimony as to the meaning of the agreement. Griffith v. U.S., 245 F.Supp. 678 (D.N.J. 1965), aff'd 360 F.2d 210 (3 Cir.1966).
Based upon the testimony and the ambiguous wording in the agreement, the court finds that there was no prohibition to overnight visitation in the presence of an unrelated person of the opposite sex. Although Mrs. Kelly may have thought that the use of the word "morals" in the agreement meant the kind of limitation expressed in DeVita, such was not the case with Dr. Kelly. Dr. Kelly specifically intended to avoid the DeVita language. There was no meeting of the minds. Without clear language in the agreement and in light of the dramatically opposed testimony, this court is not prepared to interpret the agreement as imposing DeVita restraints.
Mrs. Kelly argues in the alternative, that even if the original agreement did not preclude Dr. Kelly from having his children overnight in his home, this court should now impose such restraints based on the DeVita rationale.
In DeVita v. DeVita, supra, the Appellate Division held that the personal wishes of a parent are to be considered by the court when deciding conditions of custody provided they relate to the paramount consideration of the safety, happiness, physical, mental and moral welfare of the child. Id., 145 N.J. Super. at 128. Mrs. DeVita was fearful that the moral welfare of her children might be endangered by the presence overnight of a
A divided Appellate Division affirmed the imposition of restraints on visitation over Judge Antell's dissent. The majority recognized Mrs. DeVita's concern for the moral welfare of her children. The court affirmed the restraint imposed by the trial court based on Mrs. DeVita's concern for the possible endangerment of the moral welfare of the children. The court considered the personal views of Mrs. DeVita as they related to the welfare of the children. It did not pass judgment upon the morality or immorality of Mr. DeVita's actions, but simply recognized the concern expressed by Mrs. DeVita to protect the moral welfare of her children. The opinion is quoted at length so as to more fully set forth the court's rationale:
It is clear that the Appellate Division held that whether there should be DeVita type restraints is a matter of the trial judge's discretion. The court further held that the trial judge may consider the morals of the custodial parent in imposing such restraints.
Although this court's appointed expert testified that, to some extent, Mrs. Kelly's motives in objecting to the overnight visitation were based upon her desire to control Dr. Kelly, it is clear that the overriding basis of Mrs. Kelly's objection was her morality. Mrs. Kelly purports that her objection is bona fide by pointing out that the Catholic church supports her position and that she has been a life-long practicing Catholic. The court has no difficulty in accepting the sincerity and credibility of Mrs. Kelly's testimony as to her beliefs regarding morality and religion. Defendant asserts that the unrestrained overnight visitation will have an adverse impact upon the moral welfare of the children. Defendant cites DeVita at length, apparently for the proposition that once the custodial parent's concern for the moral welfare of the children is raised, the court is constrained to issue DeVita-type restraints upon the parent's request. Defendant argues that the parental concern for the moral welfare of the children is the standard by which the imposition of DeVita restraints is to be determined.
This court distinguishes DeVita by holding that the moral outrage of the custodial parent is not the only basis upon which this court may exercise its discretion in dealing with the issue presented. The court's exercise of discretion in this case must be based on the best interests of children. Beck v. Beck, 86 N.J. 480 (1981).
The court expert's report and testimony clearly indicate that in this case, it would be better for the children to experience the overnight visitation with Dr. Kelly and his female friend than to restrain such visitation. The expert stressed to the court and litigants that he is a psychologist and his opinion is based on the mental and psychological development of the children. He, in no way, claims to be, nor does the court accept him to be, in a position to impose moral values upon any party.
The psychiatrist who has treated defendant for some time was called by defendant as an expert witness. She is a board-certified psychiatrist. She did not, at any time, interview or
The court's expert concurred that, if properly handled, dealing with the value split could be a growth experience. By openly discussing the issue with the children, Mrs. Kelly can present to the children her moral teachings and at the same time allow Dr. Kelly to see his children as requested.
The clear and convincing evidence presented in this case establishes that the children's best interest would be served by Dr. Kelly having overnight visitation with his sons notwithstanding the fact that he resides with Margaret Doherty.
In reaching this conclusion, the court points out the following factors:
1. The question does not arise in a pre-divorce separation setting where the children are usually confused, insecure and are required to sort out their feelings for their parents. In a pre-divorce setting the children must come to grips with the loss of a relationship between their parents. They should not, in most circumstances, be required to comprehend a new relationship
2. The relationship between Dr. Kelly and Margaret Doherty has been long-term and apparently stable.
3. There is absolutely no evidence indicating that anything improper occurs while the Kelly children are with Dr. Kelly and Margaret Doherty.
4. The psychological growth of the Kelly boys will be nurtured by the proposed visitation and the impact of the message that their father is not a bad man enhanced.
Therefore, the existing visitation is to be immediately expanded so as to eliminate the hiatus created by Dr. Kelly returning the children on Saturday night and picking them up Sunday morning. In order to effectuate this decision and yet preserve in the children's minds the positive influence of Mrs. Kelly's moral values, the court instructs counsel to confer for the purpose of suggesting a family therapist who shall counsel with all parties affected by this order. The therapist is to assist the parties in communicating to the Kelly children the "value split" between Dr. and Mrs. Kelly. This communication should be handled in a positive manner. The children should be guided in understanding Mrs. Kelly's moral views. The therapist should assist the children in perceiving Dr. Kelly in a positive light. He or she should also help Dr. Kelly in communicating to the children that although he disagrees with his former wife's view of the morality of his relationship, the children should not necessarily reject their mother's moral views. By dealing with the children in such a way, the parties will be nurturing within them respect for their parents while preserving their own moral positions. The parties will thus be encouraging the children to
Finally, Mrs. Kelly argues that she has a constitutional right to preclude the proposed overnight visitation. Mrs. Kelly asserts that she has moral objections to the requested visitation and her moral objections are based upon her religious beliefs. Therefore, she contends it would be a violation of her First Amendment constitutional right of Freedom of Religion to allow the proposed overnight visitation. Any constitutional right a parent has with regard to his or her children, is always subject to the best interests of those children. In dealing with a parent's rights of visitation, it has been held:
Although there may be a question of whether Mrs. Kelly's constitutional right of Freedom of Religion is greater than Dr. Kelly's constitutional right of visitation, the Appellate Division, in dealing with the interrelationship of a father's right of visitation and a child's religious training has said:
This court holds in this case that any constitutional right of defendant as regards the children, in light of this opinion, must fall in favor of the best interests of the Kelly twins.
Counsel for plaintiff is hereby instructed to prepare an order consistent with this opinion.