N.Y. Court Denies Parents’ Request to Change Last Name of Children

The problem? The parents wanted to change the children’s last name to a name other than either the mother’s or the father’s, plus (and it’s not clear how relevant this ended up being) they had changed one child’s name three years before. From In re Kobra, 2012 WL 5373490 (N.Y. City Civ. Ct. Oct. 26):

The Petitioner, Tamannatul Kobra, the mother of two children, seeks leave of the court through the submission of two petitions to change the names of her children: Heemika Hossian, a four year old female and Siratul Muntaha Hossain, a nine year old female. The two petitions involve the consent of both parents, Tamannatul Kobra and her husband, Mosharaf Hossain….

On January 20, 2009, Mosharaf Hossain, with the consent of his wife, Tamannatul Kobra, submitted a petition to the Civil Court in Kings County to change the name of his daughter, Sidratul Muntaha, then six years of age, to Sidratul Muntaha Hossain. On that same date, the Hon. Dawn Jiminez was satisfied that the petition was true and that the interest of the child was substantially promoted by the infant child assuming the surname of her biological father and issued an order granting the name change.

In this case, on May 10, 2012, Tamannatul Kobra, petitioned the Court for approval to change her eldest daughter, Sidratul Muntaha Hossain, to a new assumed name of Oporajita Neeladri and her youngest daughter, Heemika Hossian to a new assumed name of Himika Himadri. In paragraph 9 of both petitions, Tamannatul Kobra states that “I do not like the name” as the reason for the name change.

When the application was first presented to the undersigned judge in Special Term II on May 10, 2012, the Applicant stated that she wanted to change the children’s name for passport purposes. Subsequently, in a teary eyed and uncontrolled emotional appeal to the undersigned, the Applicant exclaimed that she was desperate to change the names of her children because the neighborhood children laughed at them and made fun of them because their surname is commonly referred used by Muslims.

OK, what’s wrong with that, according to the court?

Both children would not have any name that would identify them as the children of either parent — not the surname of either parent or any name that would identify them as relatives or even sisters for that matter.

Notwithstanding the applicant’s assertions that in Bangladesh, India, it customary for everyone in “a typical household” to have completely different names, both of these children are American-born citizens and have adapted, embraced and are a part of our American culture. It is certainly not common on the shores of this nation that the “typical household” members have completely different names. To the contrary, even in non-traditional families or families with single heads of household in which children maybe born out of wedlock, the children customarily have the surname of the custodial parent….

This court, in reliance on case authority in both judicial departments, will not deviate from that which is deeply rooted in the American Diaspora which definitively supports our social customs and long standing accepted practices in New York as well as many other states for family members to share in one of the custodian’s parents name. This common practice is to “alleviate confusion in the child’s day to day life and obviate the need to explain to school administrators and teachers, doctors, insurance companies and government agencies” why the children have completely different names from their parents and from each other.

This court can only imagine the confusion and hardship that these children would have as they grow older and interact with other children and others if this petition were granted. In the current climate in this state and the nation where children harass each other, both physically and mentally, and bully each other in person and in cyberspace, it is the view of this court that this proposed name change will make the lives of these young girls absolutely miserable and unreasonably [vul]nerable to all kinds of probing questions, embarrassment, ridicule, and humiliation.

This court wishes to express even greater concern for the nine year old child. She has been in school for the past three years and is known by her friends, teachers, classmates, doctors, dentists and other professionals as Siratul Muntaha Hossain. The first name change was reasonable under those circumstances which only added the surname of her biological father and was approved by the court. This name change is clearly a deviation from customary practices that are recognized by the courts. More importantly, this young girl has a vested interest in her present name. At this influential pre-teen stage of her personal and social development, it is crucial for her to have stability and to maintain a strong self-identity. To change her name now will cause her harm that is truly immeasurable.

Furthermore, this court finds that this proposed name change is not based on truth. The Applicant has proffered three completely different explanations for the request to change the names of her children. This court does not find the Applicant credible or trustworthy. The court further finds that the proffered explanations for the name changes are disingenuous and leaves the court only to speculate as the actual reason for the name change; it appear to be to deceive or perpetuate a fraud on some third parties including the avoidance of legal obligations which is condemned by the courts.

Even though the Petitioner claims that her children were made fun of because their surname is “Hossain”, this court has serious doubts as to the truth of this assertion. Even if it were true, such a claim is not a legal or factual basis to change the names of her children. Therefore, this court concludes that this name change application does not promote the best interests of the children particularly since it seeks to change their names to completely different names from their respective parents and from each other as siblings.

I understand that under New York law, people don’t have a categorical right to change their names or their children’s names; but the decision still strikes me as quite mistaken, and in a way that badly shortchanges what should be the parents’ discretion. As the court noted, “in the absence of a demonstrable reason, an application for a name change should be granted by the court,” and “in the absence of any objection and in compliance with the statute, a child’s parent should be better judges than the courts in determining what is in the best interests of their children.” Why then does the court substitute its judgment for the parents’?

1. Public confusion: I agree that the interests of third parties (see, e.g., the ChristIsKing case) can sometimes justify denying a name change petition. But here the court’s argument about possible public confusion is very weak. School administrators, doctors, and others have long had to deal with children whose names differ from any of the parents’.

Indeed, that’s nothing new — even when married parents with the same name were more common than today, you might have Jane Smith and John Smith producing Junior Smith, John Smith dying, Jane Smith marrying Paul Jones and becoming Jane Jones, and Junior Smith now being raised by Jane Jones and Paul Jones. (Sometimes, the child might be adopted by the stepfather, and acquire the stepfather’s name, but sometimes the child’s name wouldn’t be changed, perhaps because of respect for the father, or because of the child’s wishes, or what have you.) With the increase in women’s not changing their last names, the increase in divorce, and the increase in unmarried parents, such situations multiplied. At this point, families with unmatched last names don’t really pose much difficulty.

2. Threat of bullying for the child: I suspect that having a last name that doesn’t match your parents’ isn’t top on the list of reasons for bullying. Indeed, the parents’ claim that having a visibly Muslim name, or in particular having the name “Hossain,” will lead to more social problems for the child seem much more plausible than the judge’s conjectures.

3. The nine-year-old’s self-identity: Again, I would think that the parents would have a better sense of what’s best for their nine-year-old daughter’s self-identity than the judge would. Obviously, there are limits to that; if they were proposing something that really seemed likely to be harmful, I could see why the court might not want to allow it. But the concerns about the harm to the daughter seem to be highly speculative.

4. Alleged dishonesty: Maybe I’m missing something, but just how would changing two little girls’ name help “deceive or perpetuate a fraud on some third parties including the avoidance of legal obligations which is condemned by the courts”? And even if this is so, why not just focus on this, rather than on conjecture about the supposed psychological needs of these particular girls, needs that the judge is extremely unlikely to have a good grasp of?

5. Tradition: Finally, I agree that traditions and customs of our society are important. But I don’t see a basis in New York law to allow those traditions and customs to trump the parents’ presumptively “better judg[ment]” about what is best for their children in the context of their family.