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In re M.E.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Third District

June 6, 2019

In re M.E., a Minor
v.
Gerald E., Respondent-Appellee. Julie M., Petitioner-Appellant,

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 14th Judicial Circuit, Henry County, Illinois. Circuit No. 17-MR-67 The Honorable Dana R. McReynolds, Judge, presiding.

          JUSTICE CARTER delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Holdridge and O'Brien concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          CARTER, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Julie M., the biological mother of the minor, M.E., filed a petition to change the minor's legal last name from that of the minor's biological father to that of the minor's stepfather, Julie's current husband. Gerald E., the minor's biological father and an inmate in the Department of Corrections (DOC), opposed the petition. Following a hearing, the trial court found that Julie had failed in her burden to show by clear and convincing evidence that the name change was necessary to serve the best interest of the minor. The trial court, therefore, denied the name- change petition. Julie appeals. We reverse the trial court's judgment and remand this case with directions to the trial court to enter an order granting the name-change petition.

         ¶ 2 FACTS

         ¶ 3 Julie and Gerald were in a dating relationship for about six years and lived together from time to time but never got married. In May 2006, Julie gave birth to Gerald and Julie's daughter, M.E. In April 2009, Gerald's paternity of M.E. was established. At some point prior to December 2009, Julie and Gerald's dating relationship ended. In December 2009, Gerald broke into Julie's apartment while M.E. was present, held Julie at gunpoint, and kept Julie hostage in the apartment. Gerald was later convicted of certain criminal offenses related to that incident and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. At the time Gerald went to prison, M.E. was 3½ years old.

         ¶ 4 At some point in 2010, Julie began dating her current husband, Gary M. Julie and Gary started living together about six months later, and M.E. lived with them. In September 2011, Gary and Julie got married, and Julie took Gary's last name as her own. At about that same time or shortly before, Julie and Gary decided that M.E. would use Gary's last name as her own as well. With the school's permission, they registered M.E. for kindergarten under the name of M.M. using Gary's last name for M.E. For the next six years, M.E. went about her daily life using the name M.M., except for such things as medical visits where her legal last name was required. M.E. identified herself as M.M. and was known by the school, the community, and all of her friends as M.M.

         ¶ 5 In April 2017, Julie filed the instant petition to change M.E.'s legal last name from Gerald's last name to Gary's. The petition was filed pursuant to section 21-101 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/21-101 (West 2016)). Julie alleged in the petition that the name change was necessary to serve M.E.'s best interest due to Gerald's infamy.

         ¶ 6 Gerald filed an answer and opposed the petition. Gerald asserted in his answer that prior to his arrest, he was actively involved on a daily basis in M.E.'s life; that throughout his incarceration, he had attempted to maintain contact with M.E. by sending cards and letters; that his last name was an extremely common one that would not cause M.E. any hardship; and that M.E. could change the name herself, if she so desired, when she reached legal age.

         ¶ 7 On Gerald's motion, the trial court appointed a guardian ad litem (GAL) for M.E. The GAL later filed a written report with the trial court. In the report, the GAL stated that he had interviewed Julie, Gary, and M.E. At least a portion of M.E.'s interview was conducted outside the presence of Julie and Gary. From those interviews, the GAL learned that M.E. had used Gary's last name from about the time when M.E. started kindergarten and was four or five years old. M.E. had little to no contact with Gerald, and any contact that she did have was infrequent and intermittent. M.E. understood that Gary was not her biological father, but she felt that Gary was her true father and she loved Gary very much. M.E. wanted to use Gary's last name (Julie's current last name) as her own and did not know why her last name should be the same as Gerald's when she had hardly, if ever, seen Gerald. During his work on the case, the GAL observed M.E.'s home and room. On her books, artwork, and other papers, M.E. used Gary's last name as her own. She also used Gary's last name on all of her team and school jerseys that had a last name on the back of them. The only time that M.E. used Gerald's last name was if she was at the doctor's office or had to use her legal name for some reason. At the conclusion of his report, the GAL stated that he believed the name change was in M.E's best interest and that he was recommending that the trial court grant Julie's petition.

         ¶ 8 In October 2017, a hearing was held on the name-change petition. The hearing took one day to complete. During the course of the hearing, the trial court heard the testimony of Julie, Gary, Julie's adult daughter (M.E.'s half sister), Gerald, the GAL, and Gerald's brother. The parties elected not to call M.E. to testify and chose instead to rely on the GAL's interview of M.E. The testimony presented at the hearing established many of the facts as set forth above. In addition to those facts, the testimony presented can be summarized as follows.

         ¶ 9 Julie testified that she was 52 years old and had three children. M.E. was Julie's youngest child and was 11 years old as of the date of the hearing in the instant case. Julie, Gary, and M.E. currently lived in Atkinson, Illinois, and had lived in Atkinson for the past 1½ years. Prior to that time, they lived in Geneseo, Illinois.

         ¶ 10 Julie and Gary had gotten married in September 2011 when M.E. was five years old and had been married since that time. About the same time as Gary and Julie's wedding, M.E. started kindergarten. When M.E. did so, she used Gary's last name as her own. The school allowed M.E. to use Gary's last name, and M.E. had done so for the entire time that she had been in school. M.E. always signed her artwork and assignments at school using Gary's last name and never corrected anyone if they referred to Gary as her father. All of M.E.'s sports jerseys and gym shirts had Gary's last name on the back of them. M.E. referred to Gary as "dad" or "daddy." M.E. never asked any questions about Gerald. The only time M.E. used Gerald's last name was when she was in the hospital or had certain doctor appointments. During the course of M.E.'s life, Julie had never heard M.E. introduce herself using Gerald's last name. According to Julie, M.E. wanted to change her last name so that she would have the same last name as her mom and dad (Gary). Julie wanted that for M.E. as well. When Julie was asked what negative consequences would result from M.E. continuing to use Gerald's last name as her legal last name, Julie responded that she felt that it would be very difficult for M.E. because M.E. had always used Gary's last name for as long as M.E. could remember, all of M.E.'s friends knew M.E. by Gary's last name, and it would be conflicting for M.E. to use Gerald's last name.

         ¶ 11 In December 2009, Gerald committed the offense for which he was in prison. Julie and Gerald were separated at that time. Gerald broke into Julie's apartment when Julie, Julie's son, and M.E. were present; kicked down the door; held Julie at gunpoint; and kept Julie hostage in the apartment. Gerald released Julie's son and M.E. from the apartment shortly after the incident began. M.E. remembered some things about the day of the incident. Prior to Gerald's arrest in December 2009, he and M.E. had a good relationship and were very close. However, from the time that Gerald went to prison, his contact with M.E. had been sporadic. Gerald would send M.E. birthday or holiday cards occasionally but would not do so every year. The last time that Gerald had contact with M.E. was in December 2016 when he sent M.E. a holiday card. Gerald had not attempted to contact M.E. by telephone. In addition, Gerald did not in any of his letters ask Julie for her phone number or ask Julie to have M.E. call him. In the letters that Julie sent Gerald, she discussed whether Gerald had put her on his visitor's list at the prison, but Gerald never confirmed that he had done so. Gerald also never told Julie that he had put M.E. on his visitor's list.

         ¶ 12 Julie did not attempt to keep Gerald or Gerald's family apprised of what was going on in M.E.'s life after Gerald went to prison. A few months after Gerald was incarcerated, Julie sent some pictures of M.E. to Gerald's mother. Gerald's brother called Julie and told her very angrily never to contact his family again. Julie abided by that request. The only other contact Julie had from Gerald's family was on one occasion when Gerald's ex-wife stopped by Julie's home with two of Gerald's daughters, M.E.'s half sisters. In Julie's opinion, however, the two half sisters were not trying to establish a relationship with M.E. Other than those two incidents, no one from Gerald's family had ever contacted Julie or told Julie that they wanted to have contact with M.E.

         ¶ 13 Gerald did not have Julie's current address but did have the address of a mutual friend, Natasha N., that he always corresponded through. Natasha had agreed to serve as Gerald's way of staying in contact with M.E. Natasha, however, had moved a few times since Gerald had gone to prison. Gerald had told Julie that he would not contact Julie at her home address because he did not want to cause any conflict in her marriage.

         ¶ 14 Julie acknowledged that she had sent Gerald a letter in January 2013 while Gerald was in prison and that she had stated in that letter that things were moving forward that would be much less difficult if Gerald would allow Gary to adopt M.E. Julie also stated in that same letter that what "they" needed was for Gary to adopt M.E. Julie explained, however, during her testimony that at the time of the January 2013 letter, she felt that she needed M.E. to move forward knowing that Gary was going to be her dad and that Gary was going to raise her. Julie acknowledged during her testimony, though, that up until the point of the instant hearing, everything had been functioning for Julie, Gary, and M.E. with M.E. having Gerald's last name as her legal last name. Julie acknowledged further that she had told Gerald that she would keep any correspondence that Gerald had sent M.E. and would let M.E. view the correspondence when M.E. was old enough and mature enough to do so. Julie also acknowledged that she had stated in a letter that she had sent to Gerald in March 2014 when M.E. was ...


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