Hyphenated Surnames for Children in Tennessee: In re A.M.K.

Facts: Mother and Father dated. Mother became pregnant. Shortly before Mother gave birth, Father filed a Petition to Establish Parentage and a Co-Parenting Schedule. Father requested that Child take his surname. When Child was born, Child was given Mother’s surname. Paternity was subsequently established but the Juvenile Court Magistrate denied Father’s request to change Child’s surname. Father appealed to the Juvenile Court Judge. After a trial involving several witnesses, the Juvenile Court Judge decided to give Child the hyphenated surname of both parents. Mother appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

Tennessee law provides that courts should not change a child’s surname unless the change promotes the child’s best interests. Among the criteria for determining whether changing a child’s surname will be in the child’s best interests are: (1) the child’s preference, (2) the change’s potential effect on the child’s relationship with each parent, (3) the length of time the child has had its present surname, (4) the degree of community respect associated with the present and proposed surname, and (5) the difficulty, harassment, or embarrassment that the child may experience from bearing either its present or its proposed surname. The parent seeking to change the child’s surname has the burden of proving that the change will further the child’s best interests.

Although these criteria may offer a court guidance in determining whether a name change would be in the child’s best interest, they are not exclusive and obviously may not be relevant given the facts of a particular case. Where a father requests that his child be given his surname, courts have also considered the nature of the father’s relationship with the child.

In this case, the testimony at trial established that Father maintained a good relationship with Child. Father testified to a “very strong bond” with Child and described his active participation in Child’s life. Both parents expressed concerns about Child’s surname, particularly regarding potentially embarrassing questions to Child that might arise from others as to why Child does not share the surname of Father or Child’s half-sister.

Based on the foregoing, the Court concluded:

We are persuaded that hyphenating the Child’s surname will affirm her bond with Father, as well. This bond, as well as the strength of both families as evidenced in the record, is effectively reflected through a hyphenated surname combining the family names. Though neither party in this case initially advocated a hyphenated surname, there is sufficient evidence in the record to support the Juvenile Court’s finding that changing the Child’s surname to King-Weseman is in her best interest. With this outcome, the Child can, as the Juvenile Court stated in explaining its ruling, “be called by the last name of both strong families.” The evidence does not preponderate against the Juvenile Court’s finding that changing the Child’s surname to a hyphenated name is in her best interest.

In re A.M.K. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, August 11, 2011).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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