What's In A Name?

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

Do you know the laws and legal steps you must take in order to change your name? In Tennessee, it’s actually pretty simple, but you do have to follow certain steps and check a few boxes. All these rules can be found in Tennessee Code Title 29 Chapter 8. This statute sets out the procedure of what to file where and the requirements you must meet. We will explore some of the nuances below. 

First, you must formally file a Petition in the Chancery Court in the county in which you reside. There is a filing fee associated with this and you should contact your county’s Chancery Court Clerk to know how much this is as it differs throughout the state. Additionally, you will need to file your birth certificate, social security card and official photo identification. You will most likely, in a run-of-the-mill case, have one court date where you must be present and have an Order to submit for the Judge’s approval.

Secondly, your Petition must meet all the requirements. Some people are unfortunately prohibited from changing their names at all however. Who you may ask? People who’ve been convicted of first or second degree murder and/or forced to register with the Tennessee Sexual Offender or Violent Sexual Offender Registration are prohibited from changing their names. Even if you are not on this list, there is still the possibility your Petition may be denied. Why, you may ask? If the Court has reason to believe you are trying to defraud or mislead someone or the public or if you are changing your name in bad faith, the Court may deny your Petition. 

There are certain triggering facts that may lead the Court to think you are changing your name in bad faith. One triggering fact is if you have had any past felony convictions (not just those listed above). If that’s the case, you must prove by clear and convincing evidence that you are only trying to change your name for a good-faith reason. What’s a good faith reason you may ask? Life altering events such as marriage, divorce, and adoption are all good faith reasons that usually will not cause the Court to raise an eyebrow. Another good faith reason, although not as common, is to correct an error on a birth certificate.

Third, you must make sure that what you are changing your name to is something that will be approved. You want the Judge to sign your Order on your court date as mentioned above! The rules on what you may change your name to are surprisingly lax, but there are guidelines. You should not change your name to a famous person’s name for obvious reasons. Other than being confusing and frivolous, this could also be seen as misleading the public. You should not change your name to something obscene. If you are unsure if your hoped-for name is obscene, well, it probably is, but this would be something that would reasonably offend someone - think racial slurs, curse words, and the like. You should not change your name to something overly confusing that contains hyphens, numerals, symbols, etc. Hyphens are not off-limits, as you will see below, but should not be used in a way to make the name overly confusing. 

Those are the big three things to watch out for when changing your name.

Now, there are a few more important tidbits to be aware of if you are wanting to change your child’s name. Be aware that your child is a minor if under 18 years of age and that there are two parents who need to be involved in this process. Both parents must agree to the name change, and both parents should join in on the Petition. This means they both must sign the petition and that they both need to appear in court on that court date mentioned earlier. Additionally, the child should be present as well and you still must file all the documents mentioned above with the Petition (birth certificate, social security card and official photo identification). Additionally, it must be proven by clear and convincing evidence that this name change is in the best interest of the minor child. One of the most common reasons to change a minor’s name is to carry on the legacy of the family name. This may mean that at the time of birth, the child was given the mother's last name, and now both parents are wanting to change the name to the father’s name. The most common issue when changing a minor child’s name is that the parents do not agree. If mother and father are at a stand-still, then hyphenation is the ultimate compromise. The most common way this plays out is that the Judge will hear from each parent as to why the child should not bear only father’s last name or only mother’s last name, and then the Judge will order that the child’s name be hyphenated. One bump in the road is if the father is not legally the father. This means that if the parents are not married and/or the father is not on the birth certificate, then the father is not legally deemed to be “dad” until there is an Order of Paternity. The parents must go through the Juvenile Court of the county where the child resides to declare the biological father as the legal father before a name change may be done. It is common for the Juvenile Court Judge to take up a name change issue along with the paternity issue on the same court date, so you may be able to knock out both issues at the same time. 

So, you have made it through all the red tape in Court, and you have the Judge-Signed Order of a name change! Now what, you may ask? You must now go to the dreaded DMV, the Department of Vital Records, and you must call all accounts that you may have, etc. to update everyone on your shiny, new name. Good luck to you and your name-changing endeavors.

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