Facts: Mother and Father are the unmarried parents of Child.
Before being discharged from the hospital, when it was time to sign Child’s birth certificate, Mother informed Father that she had decided Child would have her last name. Mother testified she did not make this decision lightly and felt it was in Child’s best interest because of Father’s “erratic behavior.”
Two months after Child’s birth, Father filed a petition to establish paternity, to obtain specific parenting time, and to change the child’s last name to Father’s surname. Mother filed a response opposing the name change.
Father testified that changing the surname was in Child’s best interests for the following reasons:
Because it reflects his heritage on both sides. His whole name would have been essentially reflecting his heritage on both sides. A first and middle name that came from his mother, the last name that — that comes from his father. It’s not so much about tradition, as I’m afraid a lot of people want to push in these cases. It’s about balance. And I firmly believe that in any instance where it’s possible, there should be reasonable balance for a child, in a child’s life, and I think that this would create that. I think this would cement that in a lot of ways.
Mother testified it was in Child’s best interest to have her surname because, inter alia, the child lives with her and her mother, who share the same surname, and Mother’s brother and his family live close by and also share the same surname.
After a hearing, the trial court found that Father, as the parent seeking to change Child’s surname, failed to prove that changing Child’s last name will further Child’s best interests.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 68-3-305(b)(1) establishes that the birth certificate of a child born to an unmarried mother shall reflect the mother’s surname or the mother’s maiden surname unless both parents have requested otherwise. Moreover, the child’s surname is not changed following a legitimation or paternity proceeding unless so ordered by the court.
Tennessee law provides that a child’s surname should not be changed 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 last name has the burden of proving that the change will further the child’s best interests.
After reviewing the record, the Court concluded:
Father did not offer sufficient evidence to show that changing the child’s surname was in the child’s best interest. There is no proof that changing the child’s surname will affect the child’s relationship with either parent. There is also no evidence that either the surname of Mother or of Father maintains a higher degree of respect than the other or that using Father’s surname will be more beneficial to the child than using Mother’s surname. Further, Father did not demonstrate that the child will encounter difficulties or be subject to harassment or embarrassment if he uses Mother’s surname. He merely asserted his belief that the child’s name should reflect “his heritage on both sides,” and that the name change would create a “reasonable balance” in the child’s life; however, as the [trial] court noted, a parent’s wish or preference that the child share his or her surname is not sufficient to justify such relief and is not evidence that a name changes in the child’s best interest.
Based on the foregoing, we agree with the [trial] court’s determination that “Father’s proffered reasons to change the child’s surname do not amount to his carrying the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence” that changing the child’s surname to his surname is in the child’s best interests.
Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed. Child will retain Mother’s last name.
K.O.’s Comment: Compare this result with that of Connor v. King, where the trial court ordered the child’s surname to be hyphenated to include the father’s last name because it would “affirm [the child’s] bond” with the father, or In re A.M.K., where the child’s hyphenated surname was upheld so the child could share the name of both families. Those cases will provide some guidance to lawyers and litigants seeking to change a child’s last name.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family Law Attorney.