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Terminating Parental Rights: A Rose By Any Other Name

What do you want to accomplish, terminate parental rights? Then how important is a name? It may not be as important as you think.

William Shakespeare wrote the very famous lines, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Shakespeare meant that what is important is what something is, not what it is called. It turns out that this quote can apply in a legal setting as well.

I was in court in Gwinnett County one morning waiting for my hearing to start. A pro se litigant went first. A pro se litigant is a person who represents him or herself instead of hiring an attorney (which is seldom a good idea).

She asked the judge to change her son's name because her ex-husband had never visited with her son nor had he sent any child support. The judge asked the woman what she thought the name change would accomplish. The frustrated mother stated that she believed it would make the child "hers" and would terminate his rights to the child. She was terribly wrong. The judge was incredibly frustrated but could not provide her legal advice.

(Practice Note: Before going to court, it is important to make sure that you understand your rights and that you are not acting upon incorrect if not wildly inaccurate assumptions.)

I know of another woman in Hall County who had her son's name changed to her new husband's name, incorrectly believing that the name change would accomplish the same thing as a step-parent adoption. She believed that if her son had her new husband's name, that meant her new husband was the child's new legal father as well and that her son's biological father's rights were terminated because of the name change. Not true. Biological father's rights were completely undisturbed.

I know of a litigant out in Barrow County who also believed that a name change would be a way to accomplish a step-parent adoption. She believed that if she changed her daughter's name to her new husband's name, that they would then be legally tied to one another and that it would help her husband's immigration status in the United States. The issue of using your child to benefit your new spouse notwithstanding, putting his name as your child's surname does not make the child his and will not fool pretty much anyone.

Having matching last names with a parent or not having the same name as an estranged parent doesn't actually affect custody rights. Changing your child's last name so that it doesn't match his father's doesn't cut off that father's rights. About the only thing it does is make your child's life more complicated with Homeland Security.

What's in a Name? What's your intention? If you want to terminate a parent's rights, there is a way to do so legally, but it is much more complicated than a name change. As you could expect, family law does provide processes for such things.

Also, changing your child's name without notice to the child's other parent can have adverse legal ramifications as well. Some form of caveat emptor applies here.

Always be sure to consult with an attorney when something so important as custody rights are on the line. Do not rely on Google or on what your friend's uncle's sister-in-law's best friend thinks she heard. Our office provides free consultations. Know your rights.

Call it a Rose, but don't get pricked by the thorns. 

Jennifer McCall 

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