In Tennessee, a child's last name must be her mother's surname, her father's surname or a combination of those two names. A parent can apply to the court to have his baby’s last name changed, but whether it is approved or not depends on the specific circumstances of the case. Above all, the child’s name will be changed only if the court decides it is in the child’s best interests to do so.
Tennessee Birth Certificate Laws
A child's last name on her birth certificate must comply with Tennessee law. If the child's mother was married when the child was born or at any time during the 300 days leading up to the child's birth, her husband or former husband is presumed to be the child's legal father, and the child will have his surname.
One exception to this is if the mother kept her maiden name and never used her husband's surname, and both the mother and the father signed a sworn statement agreeing that their child's last name would be the mother's maiden surname.
Another exception is if the child's mother and legal father agree that the child's last name will be a combination of both their surnames, for example, Wilson-Smith if the mother's last name is Wilson and the father's last name is Smith.
A Baby Born to an Unmarried Mother
The situation is different if the mother was not married when her child was born and was not married at any time during the 300 days preceding the child’s birth. Under Tennessee law, if there is no valid acknowledgement of paternity, the child takes the mother’s surname. If paternity is acknowledged at any time before the child turns 9 years old, the child may take the legal father's surname.
The Barabas Factors
In the 1993 case of Barabas v. Rogers, the court specified five factors to be considered when making a decision on a change of name application concerning a child:
- The child’s preference.
- The potential effect of the name change on the child’s relationship with each parent.
- The length of time the child has had his present surname.
- The level of community respect associated with the child’s present surname, and the proposed new surname.
- Any difficulty, embarrassment or harassment the child may experience as a result of his present or proposed new surname.
Additionally, the burden of proving that the name is in the child’s best interests falls on the parent who is seeking the change. Tennessee law does not state exactly how much proof is required, beyond more than “insubstantial proof.”
Father Requesting Name Change
If a father wants his child to have his last name, but the child was born to an unmarried mother and therefore automatically takes the mother's last name, the father must petition the court and prove that changing the baby’s last name to match his surname is in the child’s best interests.
Read More: Father's Rights on a Child's Last Name Change
Sullivan v. Brooks
In the 2011 case Sullivan v. Brooks, the baby’s surname on the birth certificate was the mother’s maiden name, but the father was present from the time of the child’s birth and was a very involved parent. When the baby was eight days old, the father petitioned the court to establish parentage and requested that the baby’s last name be changed to his. The mother objected to the name change because she and the baby lived with her parents, and she wanted the baby to have the same last name as everyone else in the household.
The trial court granted the father’s request, applying the Barabas factors and finding that taking the father’s last name was in the best interests of the child. The court also reasoned that because both parents were young, it was likely that the mother would marry one day and take the last name of her husband.
The mother appealed the decision, and the Court of Appeals held that there was not more than “insubstantial proof” that the name change was in the child’s best interests in this case. The court stated that the father’s preference for a child born out of wedlock to reflect his parentage was not sufficient cause for renaming the child. Therefore, in this case the child’s last name remained the mother’s surname.
Combining Both Parents’ Names
In another 2011 case, Re: A.M.K., the non-marital child had the mother’s maiden surname. Following the father’s petition to the court to establish parentage and change the child’s last name to his surname, the court allowed a hyphenated combination of both parents’ last names. In this case, the child was older than the baby in Sullivan v. Brooks, so the father had longer to create a strong bond and commit to parenting time. Also, both parents were concerned that the child would be embarrassed without the father’s surname.
In Re: A.M.K., the court considered the nature of the father’s relationship with the child as well as the Barabas factors, and came up with a compromise for the parents (a hyphenated combination of both surnames).
Hybrid Surnames Not Permitted
Tennessee law does not allow a completely new last name to be created for a child by blending both parents' surnames together. For example, a mother or father cannot combine the names Wilson and Smith to be "Smilson."
This position was reinforced by the Tennessee Attorney General’s Opinion No. 14-75 (August 14, 2015), which made it clear that hybrid surnames for children are not permissible. A combination of the parents’ surnames must include whole names as listed, for example Wilson-Smith.
How to Change a Baby’s Name
To change a baby's last name in Tennessee, both parents or legal guardians must complete and sign the form "Petition for Change of Name of a Minor." (A step-parent can only consent to the name change of a minor if the parental rights of the natural mother or father have been terminated.) The Petition should be signed in the presence of a notary public.
The "Order for Change of Name of a Minor" form should also be completed, apart from the field for the judge's signature. The Petition, the Order and all necessary identification documents (the child's birth certificate, photo identification of both parents, marriage license or certificate if the parents are married, and Social Security cards for the minor and both parents) should be filed with the court clerk at the local Chancery court. At this time, the filing fee (this is typically around $150, but parents should check with the clerk at their local court) must be paid.
The court will schedule a hearing, which should be attended by both parents and the minor child. The judge will consider all facts of the case and arguments put forward by the parties before deciding whether or not the name change is in the child's best interests.
New Birth Certificate for the Baby
When the Order for the change of name has been granted, the parents can apply for a new birth certificate for the baby. They must send a certified copy of the court order together with the child's original birth certificate and a check or money order for $30 to TN Vital Records, 710 James Robertson Parkway, Nashville, TN 37243. To expedite the request, they can pay an additional $5 fee. Typically, it takes up to four weeks to receive the new birth certificate.
- Tennessee State Courts: Johnathan Leonard Sullivan v. Tracy L. Brooks
- Justia US Law: Barabas v. Rogers
- Tennessee State Courts: In Re: A.M.K.
- eForms: Petition for Change of Name
- eForms: Order
- Justia US Law: Tennessee Code: 68-3-305 - Father's name on birth certificate Surname of child
- Justia US Law: Tennessee Code: 36-2-304 - Presumption of parentage.
- State of Tennessee Office of the Attorney General: August 14, 2014 Opinion No. 14-75
- Shelby County Tennessee: Petition to Change Name of Minor
Claire is a qualified lawyer and specialized in family law before becoming a full-time writer. She has written for many digital publications, including The Washington Post, Forbes, Vice and HealthCentral.