Texas Appeals Court Reverses Order Changing Child’s Name

When there is a finding of paternity, a child’s father may move to change the child’s name.  Under Texas family law and the state constitution, both parents are treated equally, however, so a child’s surname will not be changed to that of the father based solely on tradition. The court may only change the child’s name based on “good cause shown” and the best interest of the child.   Some courts consider a showing of the child’s best interest to be sufficient to establish good cause, but other courts require the requesting party to establish both.

In a recent case, the parents agreed on all issues except the child’s name.  According to the court’s opinion, the mother told the father she was pregnant while they were dating.  She broke up with him after he asked her to consider an abortion.  She then got back together with an ex-boyfriend.  She gave the child the boyfriend’s first and last names, but called him by his middle name.  The mother told the father he was actually the child’s father after she broke up with the boyfriend.

The father filed a petition to establish paternity, appoint him managing conservator, and change the child’s name.  The mother asked to be the sole managing conservator and receive child support.

The parties ultimately agreed on custody, visitation and child support, but not the issue of the child’s name.

The father testified he wanted to change the child’s name to have a “namesake” and “carry on” his family name.  The mother asked to make the child’s original middle name his first name and change his surname to her surname.  She testified he was always called by his middle name and responded to it.  She argued he should not have the father’s last name due to the father’s lack of interest in the pregnancy and failure to provide adequate financial support after the child was born.

The associate judge’s proposed order would make the child’s original middle name his first name and change his last name to his father’s name.  The father moved for a de novo hearing.

At the de novo hearing, the father testified he wanted his son to share his father’s name.  The mother argued the father should not be allowed to change the child’s name due to his initial lack of interest and financial support.  The trial court ordered the child’s name be changed as requested by the father, but told the mother she could move to modify the child’s name if the father did not show interest in the child during the next year.

After her motion for reconsideration was denied, the mother appealed, arguing the trial court abused its discretion in changing the child’s names without evidence of good cause or the child’s best interest.  She asked the appeals court to reinstate the associate judge’s decision, making the child’s original middle name his first name and giving him his father’s last name.

Although courts consider six factors to determine if a surname change is in the child’s best interest, the appeals courts found three of them relevant to its determination of whether changing the child’s first and middle names was in his best interest.   The appeals court considered whether changing his name would avoid anxiety, confusion, or embarrassment.  The appeals court also considered which name would help with the child’s associational identity and how a change would affect his bonds with his family.  Additionally, the court considered how long the child had been using his name and the level of identity he had with it.

The appeals court found no evidence that changing the child’s name would help him avoid anxiety, embarrassment, or confusion.  The appeals court found that changing the child’s first name to the father’s name was more likely to cause confusion because he had been called by his middle name and identified with it.

The appeals court also noted that changing the child’s surname to match the father’s should theoretically strengthen his bond with the father’s family.  The appeals court found no evidence having his father’s first name would further strengthen that bond or benefit the child in any way.

The only reason the father provided for changing the child’s name was carrying on the family namesake.  The appeals court noted that the parent’s desire alone is not sufficient to show the change is in the child’s best interest.  The appeals court found no evidence in the record supporting a finding the change of the child’s first and middle names was in his best interest and the court had abused its discretion.

The appeals court found, however, that it could not just “reinstate” the associate judge’s decision as the mother requested.  The associate judge’s role is to draft a proposed order, which only becomes final if approved by the referring court.  In this case, the referring court held a de novo hearing and issued a final order.  The associate judge’s proposed order had no effect once the referring court issued its own final order, so it could not be reinstated.

Although the mother had not challenged the change of the child’s last name to the father’s, the appeals court did not want to affirm that part of the order while remanding the case to the trial court to address the rest of the child’s name.  The appeals court therefore remanded the case to the trial court to determine if the last name should be changed, and whether it was in the child’s best interest and to keep his given names or change his first name to his original middle name.  If changing his first name is in the child’s best interest, the trial court must also determine if there is good cause to do so.

This case originally involved a number of other issues, but the parents were ultimately able to agree on everything except the child’s name.  If you are facing paternity and custody issues, you need the support of an experienced Texas family law attorney.  Call McClure Law Group at 214.692.8200 to set up an appointment.  We can help you navigate through your family law issues.

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