Can You Change a Child’s Surname?

There has been lots mentioned about children and their surnames in the press recently following an Italian court ruling in which it was confirmed that new-born Italian children should be given the surname of both parents. This decision reversed the long-standing tradition of children being given the surname of their father.

In the UK, a child acquires their name when it is registered following their birth by the child’s parent or another person with parental responsibility. A child’s name must be registered within 42 days of it being born. If the parents are married, both parents have the power and duty to register a birth. If they are not married, only the mother has the power and duty to do so. It is therefore easy to see how issues can arise during the birth registration process. Issues can also arise a number of years after the registration of a birth. For example, the parents of a child who was registered with the father’s surname, might separate and the mother thereafter wants their child to be known by her surname or the surname to be double barrelled. Equally, there are fathers who were not consulted prior to the child’s registration of birth who would like the surname to be amended to reflect their own or to be double barrelled.

To change a child’s name, you need either the consent of all persons with parental responsibility or a Specific Issue Order. Applications are made under s.8 Children Act 1989 and must address any relevant welfare concerns under s.1 of the Children Act 1989 (the welfare checklist).

The Law

The case of Re W, Re A, Re B (Change of Name) [1999] EWCA Civ 2030, [1999] 2 FLR 930 (“Re W”) is the leading case relating to the change of a child’s name. In case, the judge set out some general guidance for cases such as these:

(a) If parents are married, they both have the power and the duty to register their child’s names.

(b) If they are not married, the mother has the sole duty and power to do so.

(c) After registration of the child’s names, the grant of a residence order (now known as a ‘lives with order’) obliges any person wishing to change the surname to obtain the leave [permission] of the court or the written consent of all those who have parental responsibility.

(d) In the absence of a residence order, the person wishing to change the surname from the registered name ought to obtain the relevant written consent or the leave [permission] of the court by making an application for a specific issue order.

(e) On any application, the welfare of the child is paramount and the judge must have regard to the s 1(3) [of the Children Act 189] criteria [the welfare checklist].

(f) Among the factors to which the court should have regard is the registered surname of the child and the reasons for the registration, for instance recognition of the biological link with the child’s father. Registration is always a relevant and an important consideration but it is not in itself decisive. The weight to be given to it by the court will depend upon the other relevant factors or valid countervailing reasons which may tip the balance the other way.

(g) The relevant considerations should include factors which may arise in the future as well as the present situation.

(h) Reasons given for changing or seeking to change a child’s name based on the fact that the child’s name is or is not the same as the parent making the application do not generally carry much weight.

(i) The reasons for an earlier unilateral decision to change a child’s name may be relevant.

(j) Any changes of circumstances of the child since the original registration may be relevant.

(k) In the case of a child whose parents were married to each other, the fact of the marriage is important and I would suggest that there would have to be strong reasons to change the name from the father’s surname if the child was so registered.

(l) Where the child’s parents were not married to each other, the mother has control over registration. Consequently, on an application to change the surname of the child, the degree of commitment of the father to the child, the quality of contact, if it occurs, between father and child, the existence or absence of parental responsibility are all relevant factors to take into account.

Each case will be decided on its own facts and with the welfare checklist being the court’s paramount consideration. The higher courts are increasingly supporting the idea that a child’s name should reflect both their maternal and paternal heritage – as has become law in Italy. For example, in the case Re H (Child’s Name: First Name) [2002] EWCA Civ 190, the judge said [at paragraph 13] that a child’s surname is of ‘particular significance’ because it ‘denotes the family to which the child belongs’. In the case of Re R (a Child) (Surname: Using Both Parents’) [2001] EWCA Civ 1344, the judge said, “In my judgment, parents and courts should be much more prepared to contemplate the use of both surnames in an appropriate case, because that is to recognise the importance of both parents”

In Practice

Whilst the case law seems to favour the recognition of both parents when deciding on a child’s surname, applications to change a child’s surname are considered by lawyers to be ‘roll of the dice’ type cases. Much may depend on who is hearing the case and, of course, the specific circumstances of each case. It is therefore very difficult to advise clients on the likely outcome. The expense and uncertainty is therefore inevitably off-putting to prospective applicants. To some, however, it is worth the risk.

Edwards Family Law is a niche London-based firm specialising in complex family law cases. To find out more about divorce and financial settlements, please phone +44 (0)20 3983 1818 or email contact@edwardsfamilylaw.co.uk. All enquiries are treated in the strictest confidence.