Surnames stoush: Why parents are battling it out in court over their kids’ last names

Changing your child's surname might not be as easy as you think.

Changing your child's surname might not be as easy as you think. Photo: Getty

After a year of painful lockdowns and financial stress, a growing number of couples in the throes of a split or divorce are taking to the courtroom over their children’s names.

Many parents welcoming a child into the world are often concerned with picking a suitable first name for their newborn.

But as their family units begin to break down, parents are increasingly likely to seek legal advice to change their children’s surnames.

Family law expert Fiona Reid, the founder of Reid Family Lawyers, said there are a number of reasons why parents might want to change their children’s surname.

“If a child is at a certain age and their name is meaningful to them in terms of identity, there would have to be pretty good reasons for that name to change,” Ms Reid told The New Daily. 

“I had a case where a child had a surname of their father who was involved in a very high-profile criminal case, so for that child there were elements of protection in terms of changing their name. 

“There are cases were children were essentially brought up by their stepfather but have their biological dad’s name, but the child is keen to change their name.

“In that case the court decided that the child might feel more a part of his family unit – which is the only family unit he knew – and share the name of his half-sibling and his mum and his stepdad who all had a different name to him.”

Ms Reid recommends discussing surnames well before the birth. Photo: Getty 

Children’s surnames are registered on the birth certificate and can only be changed by consent, with a court order, or if the other parent is not registered on the certificate.

Basically, you should try and get it right from day dot.

More often than not, and in Ms Reid’s experience, children generally start with their father’s surname.

Parents usually make the decision together when they fill in the birth certificate, however if they do not agree, or if the other parent is uninvolved, the mother will get the final say.

But feuding parents who end up in the courts may not always get what they want.

The Family Court, when it makes decisions like this, is always going to look at the child’s best interests, not the desires of the parents.

“By the time it gets to court, they’re are usually arguing over everything, and this is just one more issue they have to try and resolve.

“The views of all children are taken into consideration in a family law matter which is about parenting, and obviously the views of older children hold significantly more weight than the views of young children who simply don’t have the maturity to make decisions like that.”

In some instances, the court may appoint an independent children’s lawyer (ICL) who will meet with children and explain the proceedings and the child’s options.

The ICL will then represent the child’s wishes in court.

Parents can hyphenate surnames, or add one parent’s surname as a middle name. Photo: Getty

No love lost

Ms Reid said she and her team have been especially busy since the pandemic saw many more marriages reach dissolution.

“We have received heaps more inquiries than we have previously,” she said.

“If there may have been some minor cracks, or some not-so-minor-cracks in a relationship, social isolation, financial pressure, home-schooling all of those things put marriages under pressure. 

“Not having the outlet of going into an office, or playing sport on weekends or going down to the pub with mates, I think that caused marriages that were perhaps a little bit shaky to really collapse.

It was such a time of uncertainty, there was also a really huge spike in domestic violence and, of course, that was exacerbated by the fact that, because of lockdown rules and social isolation, people weren’t able to find shelter with friends or family.

When it comes to advice, Ms Reid urges new parents to think long and hard about the surname well before the birth, but she is aware her suggestion is likely to be ignored.

“Giving advice to new parents is probably going to fall on deaf ears, because they don’t think that everything is going to fall apart at some point in the future. 

“Think very carefully about that decision when you’re filling in the birth certificate, and if that surname is really important to you that it’s carried on, then add it as a middle name or hyphenate it.”

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