"What's in a name?" Juliet asks Romeo. While her argument is that Romeo's last name makes no difference despite the enmity between the families, the truth is that names, both first and last, carry a lot of baggage. Names tie us to family, culture and ethnicity. First names can identify gender and also provide echoes of earlier generations, as well as linking us to a particular age or epoch. Because of all the weight names carry, California makes it relatively easy for an adult to change a name, first or last. When it comes to a child, however, the considerations are different and the court procedure in California involves more procedural hoops.
Why Would You Change a Minor's First or Last Name?
Adults are permitted to change their first or last names in California with only a few public policy limitations. Essentially, you can call yourself almost anything you like as long as you aren't doing it to defraud creditors. People getting married or divorced in California can change their names by pretty much checking a box in a court form. And other name changes, even those that seem silly to others, are neither outlawed nor even discouraged. You want your name to be Aardvark or Silly Willy, you can change it to Aardvark or Silly Willy.
But the law for children's name changes does not mirror the procedure for name changes in adults. Parents can seek to change a child's name with or without the kid's consent, so the court's get more discretion. Still, sometimes a name change seems like a good idea.
Why would you change a minor's first or last name? Many name change petitions for minors reflect changes in the status of the child's parents. If an unwed mother gives birth, the child may be given her last name. If paternity is later established, the child's last name may be changed to that of the father. If parents get divorced, a child's last name may be changed to reflect the parent given custody. If the custodial parent remarries and wants to change her name, a child might feel more a part of the family if he and the custodial parent share the last name of his new parent. Similarly, adopted children often take the last names of their adopted parents to unite them into a family unit. And, if awful things happen within the family unit, like domestic abuse, the victim of abuse might want to change her and her child's last name to protect them from their abuser. If a parent is convicted of heinous crimes, a name change can distance the child from that criminal parent.
While most of these instances involve last names, adults seeking to change the first name of a child usually have similar motives. If a child was given the first name of his father who is later convicted of domestic abuse, it might make sense to distance the child and the parent by changing the name. Alternatively, sometimes a first name that seemed promising when the child was born diminishes in luster. For example, if you named your child Ozymandias, then someone by that name turned out to be a mass murderer or a much-hated politician, the court would likely agree that a name change was warranted. And some kids just don't fit their names. Who can argue with a girl named Chastity who wants to be called Lauren?
How to Change a Child's Last Name in California
You can't change a child's last name in California without going through a court procedure. Only the court has legal authority to change a name officially, so that you can use it on a passport or other identification. That means that you must file papers in the appropriate court to ask the judge to change a minor's name. A child's natural parents, adoptive parents or guardians can file the petition to change the legal last name of the minor. Generally, petitions seek to change the minor's last name to match that of the person filing the petition. The filing should be made in the superior court of the California county in which the child lives.
The legal steps to file a petition to change a child's name in California include the filing of the petition plus a form that provides backup information about the minor, the filing and publication of the order to show cause for change of name, and a proposed judgment, termed a decree for changing name. These are, respectively, forms NC-100, NC-110, NC-120 and NC-130. You can download them from the California Courts Self Help Center website. You can also get them at the court. The form for the petition (NC-100) has complete instructions for completing a name change. Note that some courts require special cover sheets or other paperwork filed with these forms, so check before you go. Most courts in California have their own websites where information about requisite forms is available.
What's in the name change petition? It's pretty easy to fill out. You need to identify the child or children whose names should be changed, as well as the person bringing the petition. You have to file an attachment (NC-110) for each child. This sets out more information about the child, such as date and place of birth. You also have to fill in the reason you are seeking the change.
The order to show cause is not as difficult as it sounds. It is simply a list of the minors that are the subjects of the petition, with their current names and proposed names. It also has the time and date of the hearing . Then, in the form, the court gives notice of the hearing to anyone and everyone who believes that the petition shouldn't be granted. Those people can appear at the time and date of the hearing and present their arguments. The decree is a final order for the court to sign. The originals plus copies of these forms must be filed with the court, together with the filing fee.
In most cases, you have to attend a hearing to get the court to sign the Order to Show Cause for Change of Name, and then have it published in a newspaper to give notice to the public. This is not required if the child or his parents are in a witness protection program. Otherwise, get a list from the court of newspapers of general circulation approved for publishing legal notices. The notice should be published once a week for four consecutive weeks. You will need to get proof of publication from the newspaper for the judge.
Once that is completed, there is a second hearing. You will have to establish that the change of name is in the child's best interests. If you have jumped through all the hoops and convinced the court, the judge signs the petition granting a legal name change for the child.
How to Change a Minor's First Name in California
The procedure for changing a minor's first name in California is identical to that for changing a minor's last name. The court hears evidence on all sides, then determines whether it is in the child's best interests. Unless the child is quite young, the court may ask the child whether she wants to change her name or not. Since first names have less to do with family membership than last names, an argument for acting against a child's preference is harder to make.
Can I Change My Child's Last Name Without the Father's Consent?
In California, the court makes a decision on a petition for name change based on the best interests of the child. Even if both parents agree to a name change, it doesn't necessarily mean that the court will grant it. (Think "Aardvark," for example.) However, it is usually easier to get court approval with both parents' agreement than with only one parent. Since changing a child's last name rewrites the "family name," it is often done after a divorce or legal separation. A father may feel he is being cut out of a child's life if the child's last name is altered, and he may oppose the petition.
If you wish to change a child's last name in California, you are required to give the other parent notice of what you are seeking. "Notice" here doesn't mean mentioning it to him in passing. It means legal notice. Usually people give legal notice by having an adult, who is not a party to the action, personally hand a copy of the name change petition and other court documents to the other parent. In this case, you must get someone at least 18 years old to hand the other parent the papers at least 30 days before the court date. Yes, that means all of the papers you filed with the court.
The adult who serves your papers must fill out a form called proof of service, telling the court, under penalty of perjury, about when and where she served the other parent. This has to be filed with the court.
The other parent can show up at the hearing and present evidence, witnesses and arguments as to why the name change should not be granted. You will show up and present evidence, witnesses and an argument as to why it should be granted. Remember to think in terms of the child's best interests. A parent who talks about his or her own interests will not be very persuasive.
The court must, as a matter of law, make a decision based on the best interests of the child. How will it determine the best interests of the child? The judge will listen to everything presented at the hearing, including everything you and the child's other parent have to say. She will look at the essential facts in your situation, weigh the evidence and make a decision about what would be best for the child. If the court determines that a name change would be best for the child, the petition will be granted. If it finds that the proposed name change would not be best for the child, the judge will deny your request.
How Much Does It Cost to Change a Child's Last Name in California?
The cost to change a child's name in California depends on whether you hire an attorney. If you do, it is likely to cost much more than if you don't, given the average hourly attorney fees in the state.
In addition to attorney fees, you will have to pay a court filing fee, currently under $500, unless you have a very low income and qualify for a "fee waiver." Ask the court about fee waiver applications. You will also have to pay the newspaper of general circulation to publish notice of the hearing on your petition, and, if the other parent doesn't agree, you may also have to pay a process server to hand the paper to him and to sign the certificate of service.