The Modern Family and The Domestic Violence Act in NJ
Domestic Violence Act, Household Members, and Blended Family Attorneys Brick NJ
As times change, with divorce rates at an all-time high, families are much more complex than they have ever been.
When individuals remarry and create a “blended family” with stepparents, stepsiblings, and half-siblings, laws regarding domestic living and discord require closer scrutiny and, in some circumstances, change. Recently, the definition of a “household member” in the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PVDA) was expanded to include family members who do not necessarily share a domicile.
“Household members” are the people who live in the house, right?
That isn’t exactly true. The definition of “household member” as it relates to who can meet the definition to be considered a “victim” under the PVDA in order to obtain a restraining order has been expanded. New Jersey courts have continued to stretch the circumstances under which the PDVA can be utilized.
A recent decision from the Honorable Gregory L. Acquaviva, J.S.C. in Monmouth County in the matter of S.C v. J.D, the family court addressed the definition of a “household member” in the context of a modern, blended family. In this case, the parties were half-siblings who did not reside together, but who spent regular time together as part of their blended family.
The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act requires that certain relationships exist before the statute can apply to them. Relevant here, “victim of domestic violence” is defined as: “any person who is 18 years of age or older . . . who has been subjected to domestic violence by . . . any other person who is a present household member or was at any time a household member.” N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(d). The PVDA does not define “household.”
What have the Courts said about this issue?
Prior to the 2015 amendments, a “victim of domestic violence” included “any . . . person who is a present or former household member.” The Appellate Division reversed the entry of a final restraining order between middle-aged brothers who had not lived together in two decades. In 2012, the Appellate Division revisited the definition of a “household member”. According to the court, the analysis shifted from the amount of time that elapsed since the parties resided together to an evaluation of whether the current conflict arose from a prior domestic relationship. The sibling parties had stopped residing together in 1960. There was no contact between the estranged siblings for 19 years. However, despite the lengthy time apart and “sporadic episodes of intense strife” among them, because the defendant’s behavior was “a direct outgrowth of the parties’ earlier household relationship,” the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s finding of jurisdiction to apply the PDVA.
Another relevant case is Storch v. Sauerhoff, where the family court held that an adult stepdaughter who lived on the same block as her stepmother, but who had not lived under her stepmother’s roof for more than twenty years, was a “former household member.” In holding that “step” relationships may satisfy the “household member” requirement under the PDVA, the court rejected a literal reading of the PDVA, instead of applying a common-sense interpretation that recognized familial, emotional, and financial ties.
What were the findings in this latest Court decision?
In order to determine what the term “household” means in terms of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, Judge Acquaviva in S.C. v. J.D. also drew upon the interpretations of the same from insurance policy cases, in which courts have found that “residence under a single roof is not a touchstone, and the meaning of ‘household’ inherently must vary depending on the circumstances.” A “substantially integrated family relationship” is a “household,” even where the household members are not continually under the same roof. The trial court found that “this flexible approach to defining “household” should similarly be implemented as a baseline in the PDVA context as “public policy concerns demand that the term ‘household member’ be defined even more expansively in domestic violence cases than in insurance . . . .”
Defining an Integrated, Modern, Blended Family
The trial court found that the facts of S.C. v. J.D. demonstrated an integrated, modern, blended family, in which the defendant resided at his own mother’s home, but spent meaningful, regular periods of time at his father’s home, which was the home of his half-sibling. That time included: regular bi-monthly weekend, overnight parenting time; extended and more frequent overnight parenting time during the summer; and extended vacation and regular camping trips. In modern parlance, his father was the parent of alternate residence and exerted meaningful, regular parenting time at his home – with the Plaintiff uniformly present.
“Household Member” Requirements in NJ Family Court
In view of the facts of S.C. v. J.D., the family court explained that pursuant to the PDVA that, for purposes of the jurisdictional “household member” requirement, includes:
“A child whose parents are separated during youth but who spends meaningful, regular periods of time at a parent of alternate residence’s home such that he or she is substantially integrated into that ‘household’ may simultaneously have two households creating jurisdiction vis-à-vis a victimized half-sibling who resided solely with the shared parent. ‘Household member’ as used in the PDVA’s definition of ‘victim of domestic violence’ must be sufficiently flexible to accommodate the ever-changing dynamics of modern families. To restrict a child whose parents are separated to only one household despite meaningful, regular time in a second household would alter the statutory construct, discriminate against members of blended families, and unduly restrict the broadly designed, legislatively crafted protections afforded victims of domestic violence.”
In other words, the half-sibling/defendant who resided with the mother and visited the father regularly, where he was in contact with the accused, was considered a “household member”. The importance of this is the victim’s ability to press charges under the PVDA.
Who else is considered a “household member”?
The courts have exerted “household member” jurisdiction in various circumstances, including roommates, tenants, cohabitants, college suitemates, and de facto family members who spend a lot of time with members of the family.
Contact our skilled Domestic Violence Attorneys in Monmouth and Ocean County Today
Domestic violence is an unfortunate and sad reality that occurs in many households. Should you find yourself in need of legal support regarding domestic violence we are here to orient your legal decisions. Our expert legal team will tailor a plan that meets your unique needs. At the Bronzino Law Firm, we take pride in having successfully represented clients across New Jersey, including Ocean and Monmouth counties.