When is it Appropriate to Change Child’s Last Name?

Uncontested Divorce Mediation

Posted August 15, 2019

Changing a child’s last name is a big step for any family, and there are a lot of reasons why you might choose to do so. Of course, almost all of them have at least something to do with child custody. A child’s last name is supposed to indicate who their direct guardians and relatives are, primarily their own parents. The tradition of the mother taking on the father’s name and then the children also having the now-shared family name keeps families unified and easy to define both legally and bureaucratically (in all paperwork).

As many families have incidentally experienced, a child with a different last name from their immediate caretakers is subject to a lot more hassle and confusion. “That can’t be your mom, she has a different last name” is something these children hear all the time, even if the woman in question is their real mother who returned to her maiden name after the divorce. The last name structure is so strong in our society it can even get in the way of perfectly normal custody arrangements like grandparents, aunts, and uncles, or foster parents caring for a child when the parents are gone or unavailable.

But the question you’ve likely come to have answered is whether it’s right and possible to change the last name of a child under your care. Because every family situation is unique, we can’t answer this question outright with a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without an in-depth consultation, but we can give you some ideas and examples of when a name change is appropriate.

1) Father Signs Away His Parental Right

Traditionally and practically in most hospitals where babies are named, the child will be given the name of the father. However, if the father of your child signs away their legal parental rights and declares no interest in their offspring, it is no longer appropriate for them to bear his name. If the birth certificate already has the fathers name, you request for a name change is very likely to be accepted because the child has no existing identity with the previous name and there is no conflict with the father.

Children whose fathers sign away their rights later in life can then reasonably take on the name of their current primary caretakers. This could be their mother’s maiden name, the name of a new well-loved step-parent, or the name of their new guardians if neither parent is present.

2) Part of Your Divorce Agreement

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Of course, signing away parental rights is not necessary for a name change; it simply makes the process easier because it removes a vector of conflict. It’s not uncommon for mothers to petition to change their children’s names after an uncontested divorce in Denver, particularly if there was abuse and she is changing back to her maiden name. However, involved divorced fathers have a say and can argue against the name change as part of their parental right.

From here, the court will judge primarily what is best for the children. If little to no custody or visitation is granted to the father and if the father is complacent with the children moving far away, it is more likely that a name change will be approved. In situations of uncontested divorce in Denver, children will also be asked their preference to keep their names or take on their mother’s maiden name.

3) In Any Case of Adoption

There are many family configurations that result in adoption. Step-parents can adopt if there is a legal parent slot open, grandparents adopt orphaned grandchildren, and foster parents adopt the children they care for. And, of course, official direct adoptions happen all the time for both babies and older kids.

Adoptions do not always involve a name-change, but they often do. If, for example, a step-father is able to adopt because the biological father is out of the picture, the family may seek name unification. If maternal grandparents are the adopting party, they may ask for the children’s last names to be returned to their deceased mother’s maiden name.

Adoptive parents of babies always change the last name while adoptive parents of older children often change the name but will ask the children first if they want to keep their original last name as part of their identity.

4) Escaping an Abusive Ex

The next reason that parents change their children’s last names is less cheerful but unfortunately common enough to mention. If the ex you have divorced is still abusive, stalks you, or threatens violence or kidnapping, you may need to seek domestic violence protection including at least a superficial change in identity. Many abuse survivors move away, get new jobs, and change the last name they share with their children to help keep their ex at bay. If this is the case, no doubt your ex will object to changing the children’s last names but the court may be able to help you when escaping abuse is clearly necessary.

5) The Entire Family is Changing Their Name

Far less common than the other situations, there may be an instance where the entire family is going to change their last names together. This may be a political or career move, it could be some zany thing you and your spouse always wanted to do, or it could be protective services. It could even be a proud reversion to your original pre-Ellis Island family name. Whatever the reason, if both you and your spouse are changing your name, (or just a single parent) and the children are happy with the switch, it is very possible that the court will help you with this unusual but pleasant reason to change a child’s surname.

Whether your reason for changing a child’s last name is a happy or unhappy one, the decision should always be made based on what is best for the child. If the name change will help unify their immediate family and the child either wants the name change or is too young to care, you are likely to find a path through.

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