Senior family lawyer Lucy Jones considers when and how a child’s surname can legally be changed.
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The general legal position on changing a child’s surname is clear. Section 13 of the Children Act 1989 says that until a child is 16, “no person may cause the child to be known by a new surname…without either the written consent of every person who has parental responsibility for the child or the leave of the court”.
From the age of 16, a person can change their name without the consent of those with parental responsibility.
Changing a child’s surname by consent
Before changing a child’s surname by consent, it’s first crucial to know who has parental responsibility. A mother automatically has it from the child’s birth, as does a father if he is already married to the mother. However, an unmarried father acquires parental responsibility:
- once registered as the father on the child’s birth certificate; or
- if he subsequently marries the mother; or
- if he applies successfully to the court for parental responsibility.
But modern family dynamics mean that the question of parental responsibility may be less clear. To be certain, check out my earlier article: Who has parental responsibility for a child?
If everybody with parental responsibility consents to change the child’s surname, they can do so via a simple Change of Name Deed drawn up by a solicitor. The Deed serves as legal recognition of the new name and is sufficient evidence for most purposes, including for official documents. However, it’s important to understand that a Change of Name Deed does not change the child’s Birth Certificate.
Changing a child’s surname by court order
Where unanimous consent is unavailable, the person(s) seeking the change of surname must apply to the Court for a Specific Issue Order.
The leading case on changing a child’s surname is Dawson v Wearmouth, where the Court said that such a change should only be allowed where it’s in the child’s best interests. In reaching a decision, the Court considers all the circumstances of the case but has particular regard to:
- The length of time the child has been known by their current surname.
- The reason(s) for seeking the change of surname.
- How a change of surname might affect the child.
- How not changing the child’s surname might affect them.
- If the child is old enough, their own opinion.
- Other factors that may arise in future.
Points to bear in mind
Before applying to the Court, always consider the following:
- Would a double-barrelled surname offer an acceptable compromise, recognising both parents?
- Surnames are often considered an important indicator of cultural and religious background.
- Applications motivated by convenience are unlikely to succeed. For example, in the case of Re T (Change of Surname) , a mother’s application to change her child’s surname because it would be more convenient for school and medical records was unsuccessful.
- Applications motivated by ‘ownership’ invariably receive short shrift. In Re R (Surname: using both parents) , Lady Justice Hale (as she then was) showed utter disdain for such applications, saying: “It is a poor sort of parent whose interest in and commitment to his child depends on that childbearing his name”.