The standard most courts apply when making decisions about changing a child’s name is that the change should be in the best interests of the child. Historically, paternity was usually the deciding factor: The child used the father's surname. However, most modern courts consider a specific list of factors in determining what is best for the child, as opposed to the parents, when ruling on name changes. To argue for the name change of a minor child, you must address the factors considered by the court.
The key to making an argument to change a child’s name is to present the legal reasons for the change and show a judge that it is in the best interests of the child. The easiest way to convince a judge is to point to the factors put forth in state laws that support the request. You must clearly present reasons to the court in a written petition, oral arguments or both.
Lawyers suggest beginning with your strongest argument and sticking to the reasons that have a factual basis without clouding your presentation with irrelevant statements. Some lawyers advise limiting your arguments to the three strongest points, while addressing issues that might contradict your case in a factual manner. Some courts might appoint a guardian ad litem, who is a lawyer or trained volunteer who represents the child, and judges will give weight to this person's opinion. Psychologists or other experts can also be used to bolster your argument.
The specific guidelines courts take into consideration vary from state to state, but the overriding factor in determining the best interest of the child is determining what fosters the natural bond between the child and his parents and maintains family unity. To argue in favor of a name change, you must show that the change will preserve the family unit. If changing a child’s name would cause a break in a parent-child relationship, courts tend to rule against the change. The general consensus is that a child should have the same name as the family he lives with. If a mother with sole custody divorces the natural father and remarries, a judge is likely to favor changing the child’s surname to that of the stepfather if other factors support the change.
While courts will consider the wishes of a child who is of the age and maturity to establish a legitimate preference, many judges give the wishes of the parents more weight. On the other hand, most courts consider the length of time a child has used a certain surname and lean against changing a name when it has been used for a long time. For example it might be difficult to convince a judge to change the name of a 15-year-old unless his best interest clearly would be served by the change.
The length of time a child has used a certain name also factors into his identity within the community. The fact that a child is known to schools and doctors by a certain name could contribute to a decision to keep that name. Judges will consider whether a child could suffer embarrassment by having a different name from the rest of his family. The degree of respect associated with the current and proposed names also can be a factor. For example, if a child is known by the surname of a father who has been convicted of serious crimes, the argument can be made that the child would be better off using another name.
- Northwestern Legal Services: Name Change in Pennsylvania for Minor Children
- Florida Bar Journal: Determining the Best Interest of the Child: The Resolution of Name Disputes in Paternity Actions
- Marital Litigation in South Carolina: Roy T. Stuckey
Valerie Stevens is a professional writer and editor based in the Carolinas. She was an editor at daily newspapers for 20 years and now works as a paralegal. She has edited several books and her work has been published in The Knoxville News-Sentinel, The Springfield Daily News, The Georgetown Times and Natural Awakenings magazine. Stevens holds degrees in journalism and paralegal studies.