In the United States, people have the right to go by the names they choose. However, for a name change to be legally recognized, a state court must approve it. The reasons for denying a name change can range from procedural errors to fraud. In addition, a judge has broad discretion in deciding whether to grant or deny a name change.
Procedures for a formal name change vary from state to state. You must meet the requirements in the state where you reside; you typically must live there for six months prior to filing a name change petition. In some states, you must publish your intent to change your name in a general circulation newspaper, while in Massachusetts, you need the permission of your spouse. A formal hearing before a judge is necessary in some states, while other states will approve a name change petition without a hearing if there is no objection. If you fail to meet any of the specific requirements of the name change laws in your state, your petition can be denied.
A criminal record is one reason that a name change might be denied. While most states require adult name change petitioners to submit to a criminal background check, some will grant a name change even if a petitioner has a criminal background under certain circumstances. For instance, if you were convicted of a felony but served a prison term and several years have passed, you might be granted a name change. However, if you are incarcerated and prison officials object to a name change, you probably will be denied. Some states require you to verify that you are not on any sexual predator registry.
Judges will deny a name change sought for fraudulent intent or to interfere with another. If you have filed for bankruptcy or have judgments pending against you, a judge can deny a name change request. Background checks are required in many states to reveal any judgments, liens or bankruptcies that are pending. Similarly, courts have denied a petitioner’s request to take the name of a celebrity or confer a title upon himself, such as ambassador, with the intent to deceive others.
Harm or Confusion
Most state courts prohibit a name change that involves an offensive epithet or racial slur designed to incite violence; judges generally have wide discretion to interpret what are fighting words. A judge also can reject a name change if it is likely to cause confusion. Attempts to change names to numerals have been routinely rejected, although spelled-out numbers have been accepted as surnames.
If one parent objects to the other parent’s attempt to legally change their minor child’s name, judges in most states have the authority to deny the name change. Young children usually don’t have to submit to background checks, but some states appoint a guardian ad litem to speak on behalf of the child. Courts might deny a name change for a minor if the guardian ad litem recommends against it or if the child does not want to change his name. Courts try to discern what is in the best interest of the child when a name change is requested. If a judge decided a mother’s wish to change her son’s last name is detrimental to the child, the judge can deny the request.