Changing a child’s name can be a tricky proposition, particularly following a divorce or under circumstances where unmarried parents have a falling out. It’s certainly one thing for parents to part ways, and another to hotly contest custody, but attempting to change a child’s surname will almost always be viewed as an attempt to permanently break a familial bond, and is sure to be angrily contested in most cases. A qualified and experienced Charleston divorce attorney can assist in guiding you through this potential minefield.
As with most issues pertaining to children in Family Court, the underlying guiding principle will be to determine what is in the child’s best interests. How does the court determine if a name change is in a child’s best interests? There are nine factors which the court will scrutinize:
1. The length of time that a child has used a present surname.
2. The effect of the change on the preservation and development of the child’s relationship with each parent.
3. The identification of the child as part of a family unit.
4. The wishes of the parents.
5. The stated reason for the proposed change.
6. The motive of the parents and the possibility that the use of a different name will cause insecurity or a lack of identity.
7. The difficulty, harassment, or embarrassment that the child may experience when the child bears a different surname from the custodial parent.
8. The preference of the child if the child is of an age and maturity to express a meaningful preference.
9. The degree of community respect associated with the present and proposed surname.
In order to make factual determinations on many of these factors, the court will first appoint a Guardian ad Litem to conduct a thorough background investigation, interview potential witnesses, and speak with the child if the child is old enough to comprehend the circumstances. The GAL will then issue a report to the court with his or her findings of fact, which will be relied upon heavily by the court in making its final determination.
A mother seeking to change her children’s last name to her own following a divorce is likely facing an uphill, if not nearly impossible task, unless the father has committed some gross misconduct against the children, perhaps is imprisoned, or has disappeared altogether. A single mother faces much better odds, particularly if her motives are pure (the child feels like an “outsider” in the mother’s family because of the name, or barely knows the father) and the child is old and mature enough to express a strong preference for the change.
Certainly, if the rights of a parent are terminated, and the child is subsequently adopted by a stepparent, a name change will almost certainly be granted.
If you feel that your child would benefit from a name change, please contact one of our experienced Charleston divorce attorneys for assistance.