There are many reasons a parent may be compelled to change a child’s name – particularly their surname. The most common with which our Monmouth County family law attorneys are familiar:
- Adoption. When a family or stepparent adopts a child, changing the child’s last name to match the rest of the family’s makes sense and helps the child to feel a part of the cohesive family unit. The change in the child’s last name makes the adoption feel complete.
- Marriage or divorce. In cases where one parent is awarded the majority of custody, they may seek to change their child’s last name (along with their own) after the divorce. There are some reasons this makes sense, but courts may be reticent to do this without good reason. In some cases, stepparents don’t even need to adopt the child for the courts to approve a request for changing the child’s name (though adoption certainly helps the case). More commonly is a couple who has a child prior to marriage, the child has the mother’s surname, but later it is changed to the father’s surname when their parents are married.
- Abuse or abandonment. If a child suffered abandonment or abuse at the hands of a parent (or other relative) whose name they carry, the court may permit a change of name to allow the child an opportunity to move on from that trauma.
- Child’s preference. Sometimes this is due to abandonment or abuse, but other times, it is simply because the child just really doesn’t like their name.
- Paternity issues. If the identity of the child’s father isn’t known or provided at the time a child is born but later is discovered through blood testing, the child’s surname may change upon discovery.
Ultimately no matter what the circumstances, the legal name change of a child must be in that child’s best interests.
Recently, a New Jersey appellate division ruling underscored this fact in the matter of a name change involving a minor.
What is in the Best Interests of a Child in a Name Change Case?
In the recent case ofZ.A. v. R.V., the court affirmed a family court’s ruling agreeing to the name change of a son by request of the boy’s mother – over his father’s objection.
The facts of this case are:
- The parties are former cohabitants and adoptive parents of an 8-year-old boy. The pair began dating in 2012. The mother started fostering the boy, then age 4, while the man was away on business, and the child lived solely with her for nearly a year. After the couple decided to move in together, the man became a foster parent. Both parties later adopted the boy, who took the father’s surname.
- When the parties later separated, the mother advised father she wanted the boy to use the hyphenated surname of both parents, something the father opposed.
- The parents agreed to a formal custody and parenting time arrangement as well as child support.
- At a separate hearing on the issue of a name change, the judge granted the mother’s request.
When the father appealed, he argued the judge abused his discretion by failing to adhere to precedent set in the 2013 New Jersey Supreme Court case of Emma v. Evans. That non-exhaustive list includes things like:
- How long the child has had the name.
- How the name identifies the child to a particular family unit.
- Any potential anxiety, embarrassment or discomfort that might result from having a name different than the custodial parent.
- The child’s express preference (assuming he/she is mature enough to make that decision).
Courts may also consider parent misconduct/neglect, degree of community respect (or lack thereof) associated with a particular name, whether the child has a strong relationship with siblings who share the same last name and any improper motivation on the part of the parent seeking the name change.
The appellate court disagreed that the lower court in this case didn’t take these relevant factors into consideration. It was noted that when parents have agreed on a name at birth, the one seeking a name change in a dispute bears the burden of showing that the name change is in the child’s best interest. This is true regardless of whether the parents were married or unmarried when the child was born.
If you are thinking of asking the court for a name change on behalf of your child, the best possible outcome is for everyone to reach an agreement outside of court. If that isn’t likely, your best course of action is to speak with a New Jersey family law attorney who can advise you of your legal options.
Contact us at (732) 810-0034 or email us through our website.