While parents often face indecision when selecting a newborn baby’s first name, many parents also have questions regarding the appropriate last name for their new baby. Although the laws for selecting a child’s surname, or last name, vary from state to state, Pennsylvania provides guidelines to assist parents in making a proper surname selection based on the parents’ individual circumstances.
A presumption exists that if a couple is married at the time of childbirth, the husband is the child's biological father. Under this scenario, the surname selection is left up to the parents. Married parents may choose to give the child the last name of either parent, a surname that combines the last names of the parents, or a completely different last name that has no relationship to either parent's last name. If the couple has recently separated, the parent who has custody of the child selects the surname.
An unmarried mother may select any last name for her child. If she fails to provide a last name on the birth certificate registration form, the child’s surname will automatically be the mother’s last name. While unmarried mothers are permitted to select any last name for their children, this selection does not create a presumption of paternity. An unmarried woman can choose to give her child the biological father’s last name, but the biological father cannot be documented as the father on the birth certificate without his consent. If an unmarried mother chooses to pursue child support from the biological father and his signature is not on the birth certificate, she will need additional evidence, such as a paternity test, to establish his identity as the biological father.
Read More: What Rights Does an Unmarried Father Have?
While Pennsylvania presumes that a woman’s husband is the biological father of a newborn child, situations can arise in which this is not the case. If a husband chooses to have his name withheld from the birth certificate, both he and his wife must sign forms stating the husband is not the biological father and ask Pennsylvania Vital Records to record the actual biological father as the child’s father. Under this scenario, the mother will select the child’s surname. If either the husband or wife refuses to sign the form, state law will presume the husband is the child's biological father and both may select the child’s last name.
Amending Birth Certificates
While all birth certificates should be filed with a local Pennsylvania Division of Vital Records 10 days after a child’s birth, surnames on birth certificates can be changed at a later date. If previously unmarried biological parents later marry after a child’s birth, the parents can petition to amend the child’s birth certificate to reflect a child’s new surname. This is only an option if the mother did not name another person as the father on the birth certificate. Parents can also have the surname on a birth certificate changed if the child is legally adopted. Parents can also go through traditional court proceedings to legally change a child's last name, which will then be reflected on the birth certificate.
Jen Gehring is a political consultant and college law professor. She holds a J.D. from American University and a Bachelor of Arts in history from the University of Cincinnati. She began working as a professional writer in 2010.