January 29, 2013 § 1 Comment

The COA’s decision in Powell v. Crawley, handed down January 22, 2013, presents an opportunity to remind you of several aspects of name changes about which you need to be aware.

Christina Crawley gave birth to a baby daughter on January 29, 2010. The following day, Chase Powell, who was not married to Christina, signed two forms provided by the Mississippi Department of  Health. The first form was an acknowledgment of paternity. The second was a “Name of Child Verification Form,” which included the following language:

By my signature[,] I verify and agree that the [c]hild’s name as it appears in Item 1 of the birth certificate and Item 1 of [the verification form] is the name to be given to the child by the mother and I, and the name is spelled in accordance with our wishes.

The verification form also included the following statement:

The name given a child on the Certification of Live Birth establishes the legal identity of that child, and as such attention to the spelling of the name must be exercised. Traditionally, the [c]hild’s last name is the same as the [f]ather’s last name as listed on the Certificate of Live Birth, or, in cases where the mother is not married at any time from conception through birth and there is no “Acknowledgment of Paternity,” the [c]hild’s name is the legal last name of the mother at the time of birth. However, parents are not required to follow tradition and may name the child any name of their choosing.

Chase verified the child’s name as Carsyn Michelle Crawley.

Nine months later, Chase filed a complaint in chancery court seeking an adjudication of paternity, child support, and visitation. He also asked to change Carsyn’s surname to Powell. At hearing, the matter was presented solely by argument of counsel, who offered the forms described above for the court’s inspection.

The chancellor ruled that Chase had waived his right to have the child’s surname changed when he signed the verification form.

The COA affirmed the chancellor’s decision, but not for the reason assigned by the trial judge. Judge Irving, writing for the majority, said:

“We need not decide whether the chancery court abused it[s] discretion in refusing to grant the requested relief because, as stated, Powell failed to make the State Board of Health a respondent. Therefore, the chancery court could not have granted the relief even if it had wanted to. See Tillman v. Tillman, 791 So. 2d 285, 289 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001) (stating that it is the standard practice to affirm the trial court’s decision when the right result has been reached even if for the wrong reason).”

So here are a few nuggets to take away from this decision:

  • If you are seeking to change a person’s name only, then you proceed under MCA 93-17-1(1), which would obviously require in a case such as Chad Powell’s that the mother and father would be parties.
  • Another frequent cause of name changes is post-divorce, when the name change was not included in the divorce judgment and the petitioner wants a court order to get Social Security, driver’s license, retirement and other records straight. That kind of name change is also governed by MCA 93-17-1(1). It would be an ex parte action, since there is no other interested party.
  • If you wish to change the name on the birth certificate, then you proceed under MCA 41-57-23, which requires that you make the State Registrar of Vital Records a party. Typically, lawyers simply mail a copy of the complaint to the State Board of Health with a request for a response, and the agency will file an answer, most often either admitting the relief sought or leaving it up to the court. If you fail to make the agency a party, you can expect a result strikingly similar to Chad Powell’s.
  • MCA 93-17-1(2) allows the court to “legitimize” a child when the natural father marries the natural mother. Since that relief would include adding the father to the birth certificate, you should comply with MCA 43-57-23 and make the State Registrar of Vital Records a party.
  • There is a dearth of case law as to how the statutes authorizing establishment of paternity via acknowledgment interact with the statutes for parentage (paternity), child support, custody and visitation. If I were in practice, I think I would have advised Chase to file the parentage action as he did so as to open up all of the other relief incidental to being the father. Acknowledgment of paternity is only that; it does not confer visitation or custodial rights, does not set child support, and may even be set aside in certain conditions.
  • This decision sidestepped the question of the chancellor’s authority and scope of discretion in changing the child’s name. Since it is not res judicata as to the State Bureau of Vital Statistics, I would guess that Chase could file his suit again, this time making the agency a party. Maybe then we’ll get an answer.

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