Not many children can claim that an appellate court judge assigned their name. I say assigned because the parents couldn't agree on the child's last name for the first seven months of the child's life, which led to a trial. With that clue, you've likely figured out that Mom and Dad were not married, but Mom was married before. Here's what happened: Some two years ago, this case started its way through the Oregon court system.
Dad won at the trial level, but Mom appealed, and this decision was issued in the middle of December. Two years is a long time to go through life with your last name up in the air, but the court system is notoriously slow. That's why there are turtles under the columns and lamps throughout the U.S. Supreme Court. "The slow and deliberate pace of justice," according to wags at The Court. But I digress.
Christy Wizner had three other children in her first marriage. She divorced, but kept her former husband's name. She and Chad Doherty had a child without being married to one another, and the child's birth certificate show Wizner as the child's last name. Chad sued to change the name to his own, among other things.
Surprisingly, the parents rather quickly settled the issues of paternity, child support, custody and visitation rights. Any family law lawyer will tell you that those things are typically sticking points to any settlement. It's not something you hear every day, but fathers and mothers are apparently up in arms over naming rights. Christy wanted her previous married name and Chad wanted his last name.
His rationale? "She has no blood of Wizner in her," Chad testified at trial. Christy, on the other hand, argued for practicality" "I just think it would be a whole lot easier on the children . . . to keep the same last name."
And with that, the courts got involved, and we get lucky to get the history of Anglo-Saxon naming customs and rituals, starting in 1066. It's fitting, I guess, that the court started with the year of the Norman Conquest in the Battle of Hastings. It's an interesting history, and one that makes this court opinion an entertaining read.
The appellate court then proceeded to lay out a slew of factors to determine how to decide which name this baby gets. Here is the abridged version of the twelve tests relied on by the court (in the opinion, they come complete with citations): 1. The identity and preference of the custodial parent; 2. The avoidance of embarrassment, inconvenience or confusion; 3. Identification of the child as being part of a distinct family unit; 4. The age of the child and the length of time the child has used the surname; 5. The preference of the child; 6. The effect of a name change on the relationship between the child and each parent; 7. Parental misconduct (none here, other than involving the court); 8. The level of support for and contact with the child; 9. The motivation of the parent seeking the name change or the parent seeking to oppose it; 10. The community reputation associated with the names at issue; 11. Assurances of the custodial parent that she or he will not change hers or his own surname or the child's surname; and,12. Important ties to family heritage, ethnic identity, and cultural values.
So how did the court reach its decision? The important factors for the court were both practical and the reasonable request of the custodial parent, here Mom. Like it or not, Chad lost on appeal and the baby now gets Mom's last name.
That is, until Chad appeals and the Oregon Supreme Court decides to take the case since it's a matter of discretion. You may ask whether the outcome would have been different if the parents were married? That's the easy question, and perhaps the one Chad should have thought of first.