AEDC Legal Office provides legal name change advice

  • Published
  • By Frank Turner, AEDC Contributing Writer
Changing your name or your child's name legally and permanently is not just a matter of signing it differently from now on. Nearly all states require that you go through a formal, legal process to effect the change, as defined by each state's laws.

Changing your name

Most states begin by requiring you to file a petition for a change of name in the county courthouse of the state and county in which you are a legal resident. Part of a typical application for this change will be a section asking you to give the reason for the request.

Usually a petition can only be denied for "good cause," such as the applicant having a criminal or bankruptcy record. After payment of the processing fee, appearance in court is not normally required, and you will be notified some time later that the change is official. In some states, your proposed name change must be published in the Legal Notices Section of the local newspaper.

In Tennessee, Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 29-8-101, governs requests by individual adults to change their own names or correct errors on their birth certificates. It states that the individual may file their petition in either the Circuit or the Chancery (Probate) Court of their home county. The request will generally be granted unless the court finds that the name change is requested in bad faith for the purpose of defrauding or misleading others (such as creditors), is likely to cause injury or may endanger public safety. If the petitioner has a felony record, then the court presumes that the request is made in bad faith and it would then be up to the petitioner to prove to the court that the request is not made for the purpose of defrauding or misleading anyone. Furthermore, anyone who has been convicted of first or second degree murder or of any offense requiring them to register as a sex offender shall not have the right to change their name.
However, that statute does not affect name changes as a result of marriage or divorce. A woman is entitled to assume the surname of her husband by virtue of a lawful marriage. Likewise, if a woman going through a divorce wishes to revert back to her previous or maiden name, then she should simply ensure that the final decree of divorce reflects that change.

Once you officially receive your new name, you must immediately assume it. This entails perhaps the hardest part of the process. You must change all legal documents that reflect your old name, such as your driver's license, voter registration, credit cards, social security number, etc.

Changing your child's name

There is an added step required when you seek to have your child's name changed. In some states, you must always seek the other biological parent's permission. While in other states, you need only seek such permission if you were previously married to the other parent. If after a reasonable effort you are unable to locate the other parent, you can normally proceed without the approval. Even when the other parent refuses to give the permission to have the child's name change, it may still be ordered by the court under certain circumstances.

In Tennessee, if a child is born during marriage, the child will have the surname of the husband/father (even if the man is not the actual biological father), unless the parents both agree that the child will have the mother's name or a combination of the two.

However, if the parents were never married, the child will have the mother's surname and the father does not have the right to insist on the child having his surname, even if he acknowledges paternity and has court-ordered visitation. A father in that situation, who wishes the child to have his surname, must petition the court to order the child's name change and must present sufficient evidence to the court to prove that it is in the child's "best interest" to have his surname instead of the mother's.

Of course, this does not apply in the case of an adoption. In that case, the biological parents' right to the child will have been terminated and the adoptive parents have the right to give the child their surname. Such a name change need only be reflected in the Final Order of Adoption. The parents should then send a certified copy of the order along with an application for a new birth certificate and processing fee to the Tennessee Office of Vital Records.

Any questions regarding this topic or other legal assistance issues can be directed to the Arnold Engineering Development Complex (AEDC) Legal Office at 454-7814.