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What's In A Name?

When a child is born, there are many crucial decisions to make. Fortunately, most of these choices are reoccurring throughout a child's life, allowing parents to try different approaches for resolution and "trouble-shoot" to obtain the best results for their families. Other decisions, such as choosing a child's legal last name, are almost always made immediately following birth and marked with a sense of finality.

So what is a parent to do when the surname that they have chosen (or acquiesced to) is no longer appropriate for their son or daughter? Is there any legal way to alter this initial choice once it has been made?

Thankfully, California family courts will entertain a parent's request to alter their child's surname. Like any other request for relief concerning children, however, the court will be very concerned with any impact such a change may have on the minor.

The family court uses the "best interests" of the child standard to evaluate whether a child's surname should be altered. This means exactly what common sense tells us the phrase should mean-what is "best", or most beneficial, for the child on an emotional, psychological, and social level.

There is no presumption, despite traditional or historical thinking, that the father has any kind of "primary right" to have a child bear his surname. A parent's concerns and interests are not relevant to the court's determination-unless, of course, these concerns overlap with a child's best interests.

There are several specific factors a court should consider when determining whether a proposed name change is in the best interests of the children. They are as follows:

1. The length of time the child has used a particular surname. Here, the court is interested in how old the child is and how familiar they are with their last name. If they are in school, and have become accustomed to their name being used by others, this may weigh against a name alteration. Nonetheless, children are often resilient and able to adapt to change more easily than adults. Obviously, the younger a child is, the stronger the argument would be that they have no particular connection to their last name.

2. The effect of a name change on the strength of the mother-child/father child relationship. The court is interested in whether the name change would impact the mother-child relationship in any particular way-negatively, positively, or neither. A parent should explain to the court that their proposed name change would help to strengthen their relationship without harming the other parent's bond with the minor. For example, if you had raised your child for four years while the other parent was entirely out of the picture, you would argue that changing your child's last name to your own would help him/her to identify with you and your family, and feel as if he/she belonged to that family unit. Similarly, because there had never been a bond forged between your child and their other parent, you could argue that removing the absentee parent's name could not weaken a relationship that does not exist in any meaningful way.

3. Whether the child is in a new family unit bearing a different surname. This particular factor will only apply to some families who have recently grown and acquired new surnames. For example, if you have recently gotten married and given birth to a child, it is likely that you, your new child, and your significant other would all have the same last name. If you have a child from a previous relationship, who bears a different last name, this difference may be a source of difficulty for that child. As a result, this situation provides the court with a compelling reason to alter that child's name to coincide with that of his/her new family unit.

4. The embarrassment or discomfort the child might experience if he bears a different name. Because children have a desire to be like their parents and identify with them on all levels, a parent may want to point out any difficulties that different last names (between mother/father and child) pose for their child. These kinds of problems may come about when the child starts school and/or extracurricular activities and becomes aware of their last name as an identifying factor.

5. The balance of the symbolic role of the surname against the importance of maintaining the biological father-child relationship. A surname should be a source of pride for a child, and represent his or her family heritage. This is not the case when a child's surname is connected to a biological stranger-or a parent that has been absent from his/her child's life for a significant period of time. Therefore, it is important to show the court that the proposed name you advocate has a symbolic meaning to your child that outweighs the minor's need to be connected (via their last name) to their biological father.

To sum up, the younger your child is when you attempt a name change, the stronger your case is likely to be. Also, ensure that there are compelling reasons why the change would be best for your child and attempt to keep your concerns and wants out of the picture.
Also, a parent should attempt to discuss the name change with the other parent first, since the court will most likely allow consenting parents to choose a last name they both find appropriate for their child. It doesn't hurt to ask, since the other parent may agree with your proposal.

Written by Kayla Horacek