Denial of Transgender Child’s Name Change Reversed in Williamson County, Tennessee: In re Leyna A.

Facts: Sixteen-year-old Child was born female but identifies as male. Child is transgender and undergoing a medical transition via hormone therapy from the female gender to the male gender.

Child was diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria, a medical diagnosis that refers to the emotional distress of having a gender identity that is different than the gender assigned at birth. Treatment for Gender Dysphoria includes addressing psychological distress through social transition and medical treatment for the body. Part of the social transition may be changing one’s name to reflect the person’s experienced gender.

Child’s continued use of a feminine name caused anxiety and embarrassment. Child was known socially as “Charlie” and wanted that to be his legal name.

Parents petitioned to change Child’s first and middle names. The petition provided all the information required by law.

Three days later, the trial court denied the petition without a hearing, citing the lack of a “valid reason” for the name change.

Parents filed a motion to alter or amend.

At the hearing, the trial court received testimony from Child, both parents, and written statements from the child’s treating physician, therapist, and teacher. The proof showed all the professionals felt the lack of a name change was causing psychological harm to Child. For example, Child’s medical doctor stated, “A significant step in this transition is the changing of one’s name from the birth name to the name of one’s identified gender, in this case male.” The child’s therapist stated, “Not only do I expect this to have a direct impact on Charlie’s emotional well-being, but I expect it to help improve struggles at school, work, and in relationships across the board.”

In addition, [obviously, like, 16-year-old] Child testified:

Q: Do you believe this name change is in your own best interest?
A: Of course.
Q: Can you tell me why you would like this?
A: At a point, I thought that, like, going socially by it would be enough, but there’s the moment where it’s always me wondering what name I give official people when they ask me my name, like when you — like if you talk to a cop or, like, a guidance counselor. Like, and then there’s times where at, like, school it’s become a problem because I’ll tell people my name is Charlie and they can’t find me on the roster or they can’t find me on the sheet. And then I’m, like, okay, it’s actually under this name, sorry, I forgot. And it’s just — so ingrained in me as who I am that I get — I just want that to be what I can do.

The trial court denied the requested name change, finding it was not in Child’s best interest.

Parents appealed.

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

All persons have the right to change their name at will, as long as the change does not interfere with another’s rights and is not being made for fraudulent purposes. Absent any fraudulent or legally impermissible intent, the State has no legitimate concern in a petition to change a person’s name.

Tennessee’s statutory name-change procedures are found at Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 29-8-101 to -105. The procedures are applicable to both minors and adults.

To change one’s name, one must file a petition giving the reasons for desiring the name change or correction. The only restrictions on changing one’s name are found in Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-8-101, which restrictions are based on certain criminal offenses (sexual offenses) and where the court finds the petition is being made to defraud or mislead.

When the minor lacks the capacity to bring suit on his or her own, the minor’s parents, custodian, or legal guardian may do so on the minor’s behalf.

The determinative factor in a petition to change the name of a minor child is whether the change is in the child’s best interest.

The Court found there was absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support the trial court’s ruling:

Three witnesses testified in court, and all of them stated unequivocally that the requested name change was in the child’s best interest. Additionally, the statements and letters from three professionals were admitted into evidence, and all of them stated unequivocally that the requested name change was in the child’s best interest. No evidence was introduced indicating any basis for concluding that the requested name change was not in the child’s best interest.

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All of the evidence unequivocally reveals that it is in the child’s best interest to change the child’s name, and the record contained no evidence that is inconsistent with or contradictory to the above. Thus, the evidence preponderates against the trial court’s finding that the petitioners failed to show that changing the child’s name was in his best interest.

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Petitioners have established a factual basis for granting the petition, and no legal basis exists upon which to deny the petition.

Thus, the trial court’s judgment was reversed and the case remanded with instructions to grant the petition changing Child’s name.

K.O.’s Comment: (1) This case is also noteworthy because, according to the Court, “there appear to be no cases in Tennessee that addressed the change of a child’s first or middle name.” All the caselaw until now concerned changing a child’s last name.

(2) Here is Nashville Public Radio’s report on this opinion.

In re Leyna A. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, September 15, 2017).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee 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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