Naming and Changes of Name

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Issues about names mostly come up when a child is born, when people enter into new relationships and when they separate, and, after separationIn family law, the decision of one or both parties to terminate a married or unmarried relationship; the act of one person leaving the family home to live somewhere else with the intention of terminating the relationship. There is no such thing as a "legal separation." In general, one separates by simply moving out, however it is possible to be separated but still live under the same roof. See "divorce, grounds of.", sometimes when someone wants to change the name of a childA person who is younger than the legal age of majority, 19 in British Columbia. See "age of majority.". In a family law context, people usually change their names when they marry and when they divorceThe legal termination of a valid marriage by an order of a judge; the ending of a marital relationship and the conjugal obligations of each spouse to the other. See "conjugal rights," "marriage," and "marriage, validity of.". The provincial Name Act also allows people to change their names just because they feel like it, without the necessity of a marriage or a divorce.

This section provides a brief introduction to this subject and discusses the naming of children, changes of name on marriage and divorce, and changes of name under the Name Act.

Naming children

The provincial Ministry of Health's Vital Statistics Agency is the government organization that keeps track of people's births, their deaths, their wills, and their names. Under s. 3(1) of the Vital Statistics Act, one or both of the parents must file a Registration of Live Birth with the agency within 30 days of the birth of a child. This form must be completed before the child's birth certificate can be issued.

The form must state, among other things: the name of the mother; the name of the father (if known and acknowledged); the gender of the child; the date of birth; and, the name given to the child. Under s. 4 of the actIntentionally doing a thing; a law passed by a government, also called "legislation" or a "statute." See "regulations.", the child's surname can be:

  • the name of either of the natural parents,
  • the name of one of the parents,
  • a combination of the parents' names, or
  • another name entirely.

If one parentIn family law, the natural or adoptive father or mother of a child; may also include stepparents, depending on the circumstances and the applicable legislation; may include the donors of eggs or sperm and surrogate mothers, depending on the circumstances and the terms of any assisted reproduction agreement. See "adoptive parent," "natural parent" and "stepparent." alone registers the birth with the agency, usually the mother, that parent has the final say on the child's name unless the father obtains a court orderA mandatory direction of the court, binding and enforceable upon the parties to a court proceeding. An "interim order" is a temporary order made following the hearing of an interim application. A "final order" is a permanent order, made following the trial of the court proceeding or the parties' settlement, following which the only recourse open to a dissatisfied party is to appeal. See "appeal," "consent order," "decision" and "declaration." for a new surname.

A 2003 decisionIn law, a judge's conclusions after hearing argument and considering the evidence presented at a trial or an application; a judgment; the judge's reasons. A judge's written or oral decision will include the judge's conclusions about the relief or remedies claimed as well as their findings of fact and conclusions of law. A written decision is called the judge’s "reasons for judgment." See "common law," "conclusions of law," and "findings of fact." of the Supreme Court of CanadaThe highest level of court in Canada. This court hears appeals from the decisions of the Federal Court of Appeal and the provincial courts of appeal, including the Court of Appeal for British Columbia. There is no court to appeal to beyond this court. See "Court of Appeal" and "Supreme Court.", Trociuk v. British Columbia, 2003 1 S.C.R. 835, held that fathers should have a say in their children's names, contrary to the provisions of the Vital Statistics Act in force at the time. This decision also affects the right of unacknowledged fathers to be listed on their children's birth certificates. On June 4, 2004, the act was amended to comply with the court's decision, and s. 4.1 of the Vital Statistics Act now allows the courts of British Columbia to make an order changing a child's surname when it makes a declarationIn law, a pronouncement of the court about a fact or a state of affairs, such as a declaration that a marriage is void or that a person is the guardian of a child. Not to be confused with an order, which is a mandatory direction of the court requiring a party to do or not do something. See "order." of paternityFatherhood of a child, often contested by persons seeking to avoid a child support obligation. See "bastard.".

Now, while you're free to name your child as you wish, there are some limits. You've probably heard of Dweezel and Moon Unit Zappa, and you probably know people named Sunshine and Starlight. Under s. 9 of the act, the agency's chief executive officer has the authority to refuse to register the birth — and consequently to refuse to issue a birth certificate — for children whose names the chief executive officer believes:

(a) might reasonably be expected to cause
(i) mistake or confusion, or
(ii) embarrassment to the child or another person,
(b) is sought for an improper purpose, or
(c) is, on any other ground, objectionable.

While it seems that the chief executive officer rarely rejects a name, you should still be aware that this power exists.

Changing names

It is not illegal to use an aliasA name by which people know you other than your legal name, such as Vanilla Ice if your legal name is Robert Matthew Van Winkle. Aliases are not illegal in British Columbia. in British Columbia, although you will not be allowed to obtain government identification or to make certain legal transactions, like the transferIn property law, the act of an owner of a thing giving ownership of that thing to another person, in exchange for money or other property in the case of a sale or in exchange for other rights in the case of a family law agreement. See "family law agreements," "ownership" and "sale." of propertySomething which can be owned. See "chattels" and "real property.", using an alias. An alias is a name other than your legal, registered name.

People often use aliases just because that's how people have come to know them, like a nickname, or because their real name is too hard for native English-speakers to pronounce or spell easily. Most people who want to legally change their names do so because they were adopted, married, or divorced. Others do so for purely personal reasons. I remember reading a change of name notice for a fellow with the unfortunate name of Donald Duck.

You can apply to have a legal, registered name that differs from your birth or married name under the provincial Name Act. This is a purely paper process and a hearingIn law, any proceeding before a judicial official to determine questions of law and questions of fact, including the hearing of an application and the hearing of a trial. See "decision" and "evidence." before a judgeA person appointed by the federal or provincial government to manage and decide court proceedings in an impartial manner, independent of influence by the parties, the government or agents of the government. The decisions of a judge are binding upon the parties to the proceeding, subject to appeal. won't be necessary in most cases. Section 4 of the act sets out who may apply for a change of name:

(1) Subject to this section, a person who has attained the age of majorityThe age at which a child becomes a legal adult with the full capacity to act on their own, including the capacity to sue and be sued. In British Columbia, the age of majority is 19. The age of majority has nothing to do with being entitled to vote or buy alcohol, although federal and provincial laws sometimes link those privileges with the age at which one attains majority. See "disability" and "infant." or, if the age of majority has not been attained, is a parent having custodyIn family law, an antiquated term used by the ''Divorce Act'' to describe the right to possess a child and make parenting decisions concerning the child's health, welfare and upbringing. See "access." of his or her child and who is domiciled in British Columbia for at least 3 months, or has resided in British Columbia for at least 3 months immediately before the date of the applicationA request to the court that it make a specific order, usually on an interim or temporary basis, also called a "chambers application" or a "motion." See also "interim application" and "relief.", may, unless prohibited by this or another Act, change his or her name on complying with this Act.
(2) If the minister is satisfied that it is in the public interest to do so, the minister may waiveIn law, to give up a right or entitlement; to give up the opportunity to assert a right or enforce an entitlement. See "release." the residency requirements of subsection (1).
(3) Subject to subsection (4), a person who is the parent of and who has custody of an unmarried minorA person who is younger than the legal age of majority, 19 in British Columbia. Not to be confused with "miner." See "age of majority." child may, with the consent of the other parent of the child, apply to change the child's name, but, if the application is to change the child's surname to that of the applicantA party who brings an application to the court for a specific order or remedy. Usually refers to the party making an interim application, but in the Provincial Court can mean the person who starts a court proceeding. See also "court proceeding," "application respondent" and "interim application."'s spouseUnder the ''Divorce Act'', either of two people who are married to one another, whether of the same or opposite genders. Under the ''Family Law Act'', married spouses, unmarried parties who have lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years, and, for all purposes of the act other than the division of property or debt, unmarried parties who have lived together for less than two years but have had a child together. See "marriage" and "marriage-like relationship.", the consent of the spouse is required.
(4) If a person applies to change the name of an unmarried minor child who has attained the age of 12 years, he or she must first obtain the consent in writing of the child.
(5) If a person whose consent is required under this Act
(a) is deceased or mentally disordered or cannot after reasonable, diligent and adequate search be located, or
(b) is, in the opinion of the director, unreasonably withholding his or her consentAgreement; the giving of permission for a thing to happen or not happen.,
the applicant may, with the approval of the director, proceed with the application without the consent of that person.
(6) If, in the opinion of the director, exceptional circumstances make it unreasonable to seek the consent of a person as required under this Act, the applicant may, with the approval of the director, proceed with the application without the consent of that person.

When your name has been legally changed, the chief executive officer of the Ministry of Health Services' Vital Statistics Agency is required to make a notation on your birth certificate and on the registration of any current marriageA legal relationship between two persons, whether of the same or opposite genders, that is solemnized by a marriage commissioner or licenced religious official and gives rise to certain mutual rights, benefits and obligations. See also "conjugal rights," "consortium" and "marriage, validity of.". After the notation has been made, any future birth, marriage, or death certificates will show the new name. A Certificate of Change of Name will be issued that will allow you to obtain new identification, such as drivers' licences or BC Identification cards, in the new name.

Change of name on marriage

Many people change their names when they marry. Out of custom, wives often take their husbands' surnames, but there's no requirement that they do so, and there's nothing stopping a husband from taking his wife's surname. The options are wide open for same sex couples.

Choice of name

On marriage, s. 3 of the Name Act allows a spouse to:

(a) use the surname he or she had immediately before the marriage,
(b) use the surname he or she had at birth or by adoptionIn family law, the act or process of taking another person's child as one's own. The child becomes the adopting parent's legal child as if the child were the adopting parent's natural child, while the natural parent loses all rights and obligations with respect to the child. See "natural parent.", or
(c) use the surname of his or her spouse by marriage.

This applies to both men and women, and to same sex and opposite sex couples, and no court application is required; the newly-married spouseA person who is validly married to another person as a result of a ceremony presided over by someone with the authority to conduct marriages. See "marriage" and "unmarried spouse." simply starts using that name. To get identification in the new name, you will have to produce proofEvidence which establishes or tends to establish the truth of a fact; also, the conclusion of a logical argument. See "evidence" and "premises." of your marriage (the government-issued marriage certificate) and proof of your old name (a driver's licence or BC ID).

The sort of marriage the act is referring to is a legal marriage solemnized by a marriage commissioner or licensed religious official; the rules about change of name on marriage do not apply to common-law relationships.

Hyphenated names

The Name Act does not deal with situations where spouses wish to take each other's surnames and use a hyphenated name, like Smith-Jones. Spouses who want to adopt a hyphenated name as their legal name will have to follow the Name Act process for obtaining a change of name, described below, to make their new name their registered, legal name.

On the other hand, the new hyphenated name can be used as an alias, the day-to-day name by which most people know you, without a formal change of name. It is not illegal to go by an alias in British Columbia. Note, however, that if you do not apply to have the new name registered as your legal name, you cannot use the alias for legal transactions, such as the transfer of property or obtaining a loan.

Change of name on divorce

Once an order for divorce or an order declaring the marriage to be a nullity has been made, a former spouse may begin using any legal name he or she had before marriage. No court application is necessary. Where identification was obtained in the married name or assets were purchased in the married name, a legal change of name will be required.

Orders for change of name

Where a spouse needs a legal change of name, the spouse may seek an order to this effect in the divorce proceedingIn law, the whole of the conduct of a court proceeding, from beginning to end, and the steps in between; may also be used to refer to a specific hearing or trial. See "action." and simply claimThe assertion of a legal right to an order or to a thing; the remedy or relief sought by a party to a court proceeding. the change of name as part of what he or she is asking for in the Notice of Family ClaimA legal document required by the Supreme Court Family Rules to begin a court proceeding, setting out the relief claimed by the claimant and the grounds on which that relief is claimed. See "action," "claim," "claimant," "pleadings" and "relief." or CounterclaimA legal document required by the Supreme Court Family Rules in which a respondent sets out a claim for a specific remedy or relief against a claimant. See "Notice of Family Claim" and "Response to Family Claim.".

An application for a change of name can also be dealt with in a separate proceeding altogether, usually by PetitionA court form required by the Supreme Court Family Rules used to commence court proceedings that can be dealt with in the manner of an application, without the need for a protracted process of disclosure and discovery. See "action," "application," "disclosure" and "discovery." and likely without an oral hearing. An application for a change of both given and last names may be dealt with by a hearing before a judge.

Children's names

An application for a change of name of the children of the marriage must be made with the consent of the other parent, even when the person making the application has custody of the children. The consent of the affected children must also be obtained where they are 12 or more years old.

Change of name under the Name Act

If you don't qualify for an automatic change of name, you will have to follow the process outlined in the Name Act to change your name. The Ministry of Health's Vital Statistics Agency has a change of name package that includes all the forms you will require and instructions on how to complete them. Although you don't have to run an ad in the newspaper to change your name, you will have to get your fingerprints taken and submit to a criminal records check. As well, a fee will be charged by the police department that takes your fingerprints.

The process is fairly straightforward and a hearing before a judge is usually not necessary. The steps for most people are as follows:

  1. get the change of name package from the Vital Statistics Agency,
  2. if you're seeking to also change the name of a child, you must obtain the consents of the other parent, the child (if the child is 12 or more years old), and your present spouse (if you are seeking to change the child's name to that of your spouse),
  3. gather proof of identity, like birth certificates, for everyone affected by the change of name (usually, yourself and any children),
  4. go to your local police detachment and submit to fingerprinting (you have to pay a fee for this serviceIn law, to formally deliver documents to a person in a manner that complies with the applicable rules of court. Service may be ordinary (mailed or delivered to a litigant's address for service), personal (hand-delivered to a person) or substituted (performed in a way other than the rules normally require). See "address for delivery," "ordinary service," "personal service" and "substituted service."),
  5. the police will send in all the required information — the identification, the consents, your fingerprints, and so forth — to the agency, along with payment of the agency's fee, and
  6. once your name change has been registered, the fingerprints will be returned to the police for a criminal records check.

Once the agency receives all of this information with their fee, they will begin processing the request. (Bear in mind that the agency's chief executive officer has the authority to refuse to register objectionable names. This is discussed earlier in this section.) If all is well, the chief executive officer will make the required changes to the birth certificates of the people affected by the application and, if applicable, to any current marriage certificate, and will issue a Certificate of Change of Name.

Resources and links

Legislation

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