Change of Child’s Last Name Reversed in McMinnville, Tennessee: Lockhart v. Higgins

August 18, 2021 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Mother and Father are the never-married parents of Child.

Two weeks after Child’s birth, Father petitioned to establish parentage. He also asked the court to change the child’s last name to his surname.

The parents agreed on all issues except whether Child’s surname should be changed.

After hearing, the trial court ordered that Child’s surname be changed to a hyphenated version of both parents’ surnames.

Mother appealed.

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

Tennessee law provides that a child born to an unmarried mother must have the mother’s surname or her maiden surname. A nonmarital child’s surname cannot be changed unless a court orders it.

Tennessee courts cannot change a child’s surname unless the change is in the child’s best interest. Criteria for deciding whether a name change is in the child’s best interest include:

  • the child’s preference;
  • the change’s potential effect on the child’s relationship with each parent;
  • the time the child has had its current surname,
  • the community respect associated with the current and proposed surname; and
  • the difficulty, harassment, or embarrassment that the child may experience from bearing either its current or its proposed surname.

Any person looking to change a nonmarital child’s surname, including a biological father, must prove that the name change is in the child’s best interest. The amount of proof needed is substantial. Minor inconvenience or embarrassment is insufficient. Moreover, a parent’s preference that a child’s surname is changed is inadequate and does not satisfy the burden of proof.

The Court found the evidence did not support the trial court’s order to change the child’s surname:

A thorough review of the record in this case shows that Father presented no evidence that changing the child’s surname would benefit the child. Father stated only that the child’s surname should be changed because he hoped to one day coach the child in various sporting events. Such general statements of opinion or belief are not sufficient to establish that changing a child’s surname is in the child’s best interest. Such statements merely focus on how changing the child’s surname would be in the parent’s best interest.

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Father testified that his relationship with the child was “awesome,” but he presented no evidence that changing the child’s surname would make the child’s relationship with either parent more or less “awesome.”

Because Father did not prove that changing the child’s last name was in the child’s best interest, the Court reversed the trial court’s judgment changing the child’s last name.

K.O.’s Comment: Hyphenated surnames have been ordered and affirmed in other Tennessee cases for various reasons, including because doing so will “affirm [the child’s] bond” with both parents (Conner v. King), so the child can share the name of both “strong families” (In re A.M.K.), and because “there is no connotation of ill repute for a child with a hyphenated surname” (In re Jalen O-H.).

Lockhart v. Higgins (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, August 9, 2021).

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Change of Child’s Last Name Reversed in McMinnville, Tennessee: Lockhart v. Higgins was last modified: August 14th, 2021 by K.O. Herston

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