Changing a child's surname

Changing a child's surname

There are many reasons why a parent may wish to change their child’s surname. For instance:-

  • A parent may wish to do so in order that the child shares their name if their name has changed as a result of a divorce.
  • A parent may wish to do so upon remarriage or coming together of two families so that all children in the “new” family have the same surname and thus share a common identity.
  • A parent may wish to change their child’s surname because of concerns about the child’s safety if they remain known by their existing name.
  • A parent may wish to change their child’s name from something which reminds them of something negative e.g. where the child is named after the other parent who was violent as this might cause the child and/or parent distress.

In all of these situations, there is the same procedure: to change a child’s name, everyone with Parental Responsibility must consent in writing to the change.

Mothers automatically have Parental Responsibility (“PR”). PR is bestowed upon a father who is married to the child’s mother at the time the child is born, or by a father whose name is registered on the child’s birth certificate, or upon a person who marries the child’s mother. Otherwise, parties can sign a Parental Responsibility Agreement recording that a party has PR, or one can make an application to court for PR.

If there is consent, all those with PR should execute a deed poll to evidence the change of name. A deed poll is a legal document that binds the people who are parties to it to the content of the deed. A child aged between 16 and 18 years old should also sign the deed poll to evidence their agreement to the name change. Deed polls are usually sufficient for places like the Passport Office to effect a change of name on their records, but you should check with the relevant authorities that they would accept such an approach before executing it, or whether they require you to register the deed poll (called “enrolling”) for which there is a small fee.

If a child wishes to change their own name, they should acquire the consent of everyone with PR for them. If they cannot do so, a child may be able to apply to the court to have their name changed, or to prevent their name from being changed, if they are deemed to have “sufficient legal understanding”. Parents do not need the consent of a child under 16 to change their name.

If you cannot obtain the consent of all those with PR, you should apply to the court under s.13 of the Children Act 1989 for a Specific Issue Order giving permission to change the child’s name. Such an application attracts a court fee (currently £215) and necessitates a court hearing.

The court consider a child’s surname is an important part of the child’s identity, and case law, notably Dawson v Wearmouth (1999) says that a court should only allow a child’s surname to be changed where this is in the child’s best interests. The court will consider, among other things, the length of time the child has been known by their existing name, the effect that changing their name would have on them, the effect that not changing their name would have on them, the reasons for the change of name, and sometimes, (where the child is old enough), the name by which the child themselves wishes to be known.

Before any steps are taken to change a child’s name, it is very important to consider the feelings of all affected parties, including the child, the other parent, and even extended family members.

It is also important to bear in mind that even where a father does not have PR, it might be prudent for the mother to obtain the father’s permission to any change of name because the law is moving towards a position where unmarried fathers are awarded more rights over their children. A father without PR may be able to retrospectively apply to the court to reverse any name change, and it may be that such applications are given increasing weight.

If one parent’s whereabouts are unknown, the other parent may be able to change the child’s surname by deed poll without the consent of the parent who cannot be located. Reasonable steps should have been taken to track the parent down before forging ahead. Since, however, there may be some limitations on using the new surname if it has been obtained without one parent’s consent (e.g. questions from the Passport Office etc.), it may be advisable to apply to the court anyway: the “present” parent may be able to make out a strong case for the name change if one parent is so absent from the child’s life so as not to be traceable, so this may be a more logical and robust route anyway.

Finally, some rules for a change of name:

  • The name must not be impossible to pronounce
  • The name must include at least one forename and one surname
  • The name must not be offensive or unsuitable
  • The name must not lead other people to believe you have a rank or title
  • The name must not include numbers or symbols, and can only include apostrophes or hyphens by way of punctuation.

If you have any questions about any issue involving children, or any other aspect of family law, please do get in touch:

All information correct at the time of initial publication.