Petitioning a court to change a child’s name is usually not difficult. It will require a few basic forms, which you can often download for free from the website of your county court. However, a judge will approve the name change only if it is in the child’s best interest. If the other parent objects to your proposed name change, you'll have to go in front of a judge at a contested hearing, and depending on the facts of the situation, the chances of your request being approved may drop substantially.
The "Best Interests of the Child" Standard
A court will change a child’s name only when it is in the "best interests of the child." Unfortunately, because the test is applied on a case-by-case basis, this rather vague standard can leave plenty of wiggle room for reasonable people’s opinions to differ. Some situations are more straightforward than others, however.
When a Court Is Likely to Approve a Child’s Name Change
Here are three common situations in which a court is likely to approve a petition to change a child’s name:
- Both parents petition together (whether they are married or not).
- One parent petitions and, after notification, the other doesn’t object.
- One parent petitions and the second parent can’t be found or has abandoned the child.
Where both of a child’s parents petition the court together to change their child’s name, a court will almost always grant the name change. This is true whether or not the parents are currently a couple.
If only the parent who wants to make the change appears in court, the judge is likely to approve it as long as the petitioning parent can show that the other parent has been officially notified of the proposed change and has failed to appear.
When a Court May Not Approve a Child’s Name Change
When both parents have maintained relationships with the child and one opposes the name change, courts are usually reluctant to grant it, and will never do so without a hearing. This doesn’t mean a court won’t ultimately approve the change -- it just means the court will listen to each parent’s argument and decide what is in the child’s best interests. In making its determination, the court will consider consider factors such as:
- the length of time the child has used the current last name
- the effect of the name change on the preservation of the relationship with both parents
- the status and strength of the child’s relationship with each parent
- the need of the child to identify with a new family unit through use of a common name
- for older children, the wishes of the child, and
- any other facts the court finds important in a given case.
The court will balance these factors to help it decide which name is in the child’s best interest.
Notifying Interested Parties
If you are the child’s parent and are filing a petition alone without the child’s other parent, the court will require you to notify the other parent. You must do this even if you have sole custody of your child. Similarly, if you are the child’s legal guardian, you will need to provide notice to the child’s parents or, if the child’s parents are unknown or no longer alive, to the child’s living grandparents. In certain circumstances, a court will waive the notification requirement. For example, if the father has abandoned his child and the mother cannot locate him, or if the father has a history of abuse, the court may not require you to provide notice before granting the name change.