Can I give my baby any last name I want?
When you’re considering what name to give your baby, you have probably spent a lot of time looking at a long list of first and middle names. This is an important decision, and what you choose will follow your child for their entire life. For a lot of parents, the question of what the last name to give their baby isn’t an issue. The obvious choices are the father’s surname, the mother’s surname, or a hyphenate of the two. But are those your only options?
1. You don’t have to use your surname.
There are no laws that say you have to use your surname. When the nurse drops off the paperwork to file for a birth certificate, what they didn’t tell you is that you aren’t limited to your own or the father’s surnames. Some hospitals will go ahead and fill out that section on the birth certificate for you, but you can change it. While there are a few special cases that limit your choice of surname, in almost all of the United States, you have free rein.
2. You don’t have to use the father’s surname.
The father’s surname does not automatically have to be the baby’s surname. Some mistakenly believe that the baby’s name has to match the father’s surname listed on the birth certificate. Even if the parents are unmarried or if the mother kept her name after marriage, the parents can choose to use whatever surname they like. There are no laws that require this in the United States, though a few states do have loopholes that allow the father to petition for the surname to be changed during proceedings to determine paternity.
3. There are very few laws limiting your choice.
There isn’t anyone watching over your shoulder. When selecting a name, including a surname, the only requirements are that the name is not offensive (a curse word or slur), intentionally confusing (a random string of characters or strange punctuation), or chosen to commit fraud or deception. While those seem like pretty broad restrictions, they are not likely to limit your choices very much. Some states interpret these limitations very loosely. While you might not get away with giving your child a symbol in the tradition of Prince, you can choose something like Purple Rain.
4. Your children don’t have to have the same surname.
Even if all of your children have the same father, they don’t have to share a surname. A new trend that some parents are following is to alternate the surnames of their children between the mother’s surname and the father’s surname. This ensures that both family names continue into the next generation and is more inclusive to both families. Some people have worried that this will mean that siblings won’t be recognized as coming from the same family, but most people recognize that a lot of families don’t share just one surname for all sorts of reasons.
5. You don’t have to change the child’s surname when they are adopted.
When you are legally adopting a child, you are not required to change their surname. While it is common practice to give an adopted child their new parent’s surname, this isn’t required. Some adoptive parents choose to let the child keep the birth parent’s surname, especially if the child is older or if the circumstances of the adoption are unique. Even in cases where a step-father is adopting the child, it is not legally required for their surname to be changed. Letting the child keep their surname can be important to both you and the child.
6. Some parents are creating portmanteaus for their children.
Creating a name that is a combination of both parents’ surnames has become a popular practice. Another trend some parents are following is creating a new surname for their children that is a combination of their two names. This is different than using a hyphenate. For example, parents with the last names West and Johnson might use a name like Weston for their children. This is a popular trend because it is symbolic of the blending of the two families rather than choosing one over the other.
7. There are always exceptions to the rule.
A few states do have their own more restrictive laws. A handful of states have more strict rules when it comes to surnames listed on the birth certificate. Georgia requires that the name be either the mother’s surname or the father’s surname or a combination of the two. Louisiana is even more strict and requires that an unmarried mother must use her surname, and a married couple must use the father’s surname. The exception to this rule is if unmarried parents both agree to give the child the father’s surname. Some states also limit the number of characters that a name may have.
8. Laws outside of the US can be a lot more strict.
When you’re considering what surname to give your child, your choices are (almost) unlimited. Whether you want to use your surname, keep an old family name alive, create a new surname to symbolize your new family with your partner, or if you just wanted to create something brand new and unique for your child, no one’s going to stop you. The only thing that should stop you is considering how that name will impact your child. This name will follow them their entire life, so before you decide on something, you might want to think about how it might look on a business card. Otherwise, don’t let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t do!