Mothers automatically receive parental responsibility, as do fathers who were married to the mother at the time of the birth or who married her subsequently.
The situation is more complicated for unmarried fathers. They acquire parental responsibility if they are named on the child’s birth certificate, but the mother must approve the addition of his name. If she does not agree to this, he will have to apply to the courts for a ‘declaration of parentage’, and this will only be granted if the judge believes it would be in the best interests of the child.
In addition to the father’s status, there are a limited number of other circumstances in which a mother can change the child’s name without the father’s permission:
- If the courts have issued a ‘no contact’ order, prohibiting him from making any contact with his former wife and children.
- If the mother and child have fled the former family home to escape domestic violence.
- If the mother can demonstrate a reasonable fear of violence by her former husband.
- If the father is in prison for a serious crime.
- If the other legal parent cannot be located and so cannot consent to the proposed change of name. In those circumstances, the mother must submit a letter to the courts explaining that she has been unable to contact the father.
But these are all rare situations and do not apply to the great majority of divorced or separated fathers, whose wishes are normally respected by the family courts unless the mother makes a very compelling case why they should not.
A badge of identity
At first glance, a child’s name may not seem that serious an issue. But names do in fact carry great significance. They are a clear badge of identity, linking the child in the eyes of the world to their parents and to their family. Changing a name can seem very much like breaking that link. Most people have strong feelings about their families, so name change plans can provoke bitter arguments between estranged parents. Such rows, sadly, can become more about which parent “owns” the child than about his or her welfare or best interests.
Why might a parent want to change their child’s name?
In what circumstances might a parent want to change their child’s surname? As we saw above, domestic violence can be a major motivator, and it is one that is recognised by the law. By changing the child’s name, the mother is symbolically disconnecting her children from the abusive parent, and they may well see this as a protective measure – a way to create distance from their ex and thereby associate with him as little as possible.
But domestic violence is relatively uncommon. Far more ordinary is the simple desire on the part of many divorced mothers to re-adopt their maiden names as a symbol of a new era in their lives, an inspiring fresh start after the pain of divorce. But there’s a problem: if they do, their surname will be different to their children’s.
Plans to change a child’s name may also reflect a desire to go all in with a new partner. If their previous relationship ended acrimoniously, the idea of effectively wiping the slate and pushing a now inconvenient father figure to the sidelines may be a very tempting one.
Cultural and religious differences can also be a spur. If the parent the children live with comes from a different country or practises a different religion, the breakdown of the marriage may spark plans to relocate abroad or send the youngsters to a faith school. In those circumstances changing names may, again, seem like an appealing new beginning.
But such parents soon discover that the family courts have other ideas, and this can be a shock.
Deed polls and court cases
Of course, sometimes fathers do agree to a change of name and, in those circumstances, altering the child’s deed poll is a relatively straightforward process with the assistance of a family solicitor.
But if he does not agree, and the mother wishes to pursue the matter, she must apply in family court and make her case. The best interests of the child will be the judge’s foremost consideration. Most conclude that pursuing a name change over a father’s objections is likely to damage the child’s right to a healthy relationship with him and so dismiss the case.
If you find yourself in dispute with your ex over name change plans, consult an experienced family solicitor. He or she will discuss your circumstances and advise on the best options open to you.