As a child, I strongly considered changing my name to “Ariel.” Surely I wasn’t the only little girl obsessed with Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” during the ’90s. My parents didn’t take me at all seriously, and my name-change suggestion was dismissed with the same consideration as if I had asked to get a tattoo or move to Anaheim so that I could visit Disneyland every day.
While my childhood request for a name change was quite frivolous, I can think of several occasions when a child might need to change his or her name due to adoption, safety or other family dynamics. I recently encountered this legal issue when a client asked me for advice on changing her grandson’s last name after I had helped her obtain non-parental custody.
This little boy was only two years old and had lived with his grandparents — my clients — for his entire life. His mother was struggling with drug addiction and living out of her car, popping in and out of her son’s life on rare sober moments. The father was in and out of jail for various criminal charges, and he had met his son barely once before.
The boy had the same last name as his estranged father, a man he would likely never know or recognize as family. The child’s grandmother (now his legal custodian) wanted to change his last name to match his mother’s and her own.
WashingtonLawHelp.com offers an excellent guide on all kinds of name changes for pro se clients. It begins with this sentence: “In Washington State, if you are over eighteen years of age, you can choose and use any name you wish, as long as you are not trying to defraud someone.”
Changing your legal name as an adult is relatively easy to do through marriage, divorce or any court petition. But what about minors? It can be done, but the process is not so easy.
Each parent has an equal right to decide whether a child will have his or her last name. Therefore, the parent or non-parental custodian requesting the child’s name change must notify the other parent (or in my case, both parents) of the proposed change.
Just as in any other family law matter, formal service is part of the process. The other parent(s) must be given a chance to respond and challenge the proposed name change in court.
If all parents and custodians agree to the name change, or if one party does not appear or respond to contest the matter, then the name change will be granted by the court without any problem. But when there is disagreement, the court will decide whether it is better for the child to have one parent’s last name or the other.
Factors that the court will consider include:
* Child’s preference (if he or she is old enough to have a preference);
* Effect on the child’s relationship with each parent by having his or her name changed;
* Length of time that the child has had a given name;
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