Change of name law (children)

A child’s legal name, in the U.K., is the name they’re generally called and known by.

In this basic sense, the law on names is the same for children as it is for adults — hence the process of changing a child’s name (by deed poll or otherwise) is also essentially the same, except that a child’s parents or guardians need to change the child’s name on the child’s behalf.

The law on children’s names therefore deals with —

  • who can change a child’s name
  • whose consent is needed (if anyone’s) to the child’s change of name
  • who needs to check that consent has been given
  • what happens when a child’s parents / guardians don’t agree about the change of name
  • under what circumstances (and at what age) a child can change their own name

Who can change a child’s name

A child’s name can be legally changed by anyone with parental responsibility for the child.  But practically speaking, the child’s name needs to be changed by the parent(s) or guardian(s) who the child lives with, because it is they who will need to make sure the child is called, addressed, and known by the new name, and to update the child’s documents and records to be in the new name.

In England & Wales, and Northern Ireland — generally speaking — you must have consent from everyone with parental responsibility to be able to change a child’s name.

In Scotland, there is a legal requirement to contact and consult with everyone with parental responsibilities and rights — as far as practical — and take their views into consideration.  However it’s possible to override another parent or guardian’s wishes in the end.

England & Wales

In the case of Re PC (Change of Surname) [1997] 2 FLR 730 — in the High Court for England & Wales — Mr Justice Holman held that —

  1. (i) Where only one person has parental responsibility for a child (e.g. a surviving parent after the death of the other; or the mother of a non-marital child where there has been no order or agreement for parental responsibility) that person has the right and power lawfully to cause a change of surname without any other permission or consent.
  2. (iii) Where two or more people have parental responsibility for a child then one of those people can only lawfully cause a change of surname if all other people having parental responsibility consent or agree.  Subject to (iii) below, there is no necessary requirement that that consent be in writing (although the practical effect of the Practice Direction of 11th April 1994 is to require writing before enrolment of a deed poll).
  3. (iii) Where two or more people have parental responsibility for a child and either a residence order or a care order is in force, then one of those people can only lawfully cause a change of surname if all other people having parental responsibility consent in writing (ss. 13(1) or 33(7)).
  4. (iv) In any other situation an appropriate order of a court is required.

However, he qualified this judgment by making clear that it did not apply to children over the age of 16 —

… none of these conclusions relate to a much older child, in particular over the age of 16, where the consent of that child may (I stress “may”, for I have not considered the point) be both necessary and sufficient.

The same principle was made clear in the Court of Appeal, in Re T (Change of Name) [1998] EWCA Civ 854.  In that case, Lord Justice Thorpe referred to Re PC, and himself held that —

[C]hildren’s names are important and in any situation of dispute, either the consent of the other parent or the leave of the Court is an essential prerequisite, certainly where both parents have parental responsibility.

Sections 13(1), 14C(3) and 33(7) of the Children Act specifically forbid anyone from changing a child’s surname when a Child Arrangements Order / Residence Order, Special Guardianship Order, or Care Order is in force.  However, the Children Act otherwise neither allows nor forbids changes of name (with or without the consent of anyone else with parental responsibility) — it is quiet on the matter.  It has therefore been argued, in the courts, that section 2(7) ↗ allows parents (holding parental responsibility) to change their child’s name without the consent of anyone else with parental responsibility.

However, Mr Justice Holman rejected this argument as “little short of bizarre”, and held that —

Where parents have not agreed about their child or not been able to trust each other so that a residence order has had to be made; or where (putting it loosely) they have caused or risked significant harm to their child so that a care order has had to be made, the “rights” of both parents in relation to a change of name are carefully preserved; whereas where parents have been able to agree and have not caused or risked harm to their children, the “rights” of either parent can be unilaterally overborne by the other.  Further, there would technically, and unless the other obtained a court order, have been nothing to stop the father in the present case subsequently exercising his parental responsibility and executing another deed of name change, which would of course lead to chaos and be potentially very damaging to the children.

Before an official body (such as a school or doctor) accepts a child’s change of name — by recording or using the child’s new name — the body has a responsibility to check —

  • who has parental responsibility for the child
  • that everyone with parental responsibility has given their consent to the change of name

England & Wales

When an official body is asked to use a new name for a child, that body (as written above) has to check who’s got parental responsibility, and that everyone with parental responsibility has given consent — to the body’s own satisfaction.  The law doesn’t prescribe that —

  • any particular steps should be taken to check who has parental responsibility
  • the consent should take any particular form — e.g. it could be spoken, or written, or in some other form (unless certain court orders are in force — see below)

(See: Re PC (Change of Surname) [1997] 2 FLR 730)

However, consent (from everyone with parental responsibility) to a change of surname must be in writing if the child —

What happens when a child’s parents / guardians don’t agree about their child’s change of name

If one parent or guardian doesn’t agree to a child’s change of name, then the other parent will have to —

☞ Find out more what to do when the parents / guardians don’t agree.

When a child can change their own name

16 and 17-year-olds

16 and 17-year-olds should change their own name — using an adult deed poll.

Generally speaking, 16 and 17-year-olds can change their name without the consent of their parents / guardians, but there are certain situations where they’ll still need the consent of everyone with parental responsibility for them.

In England & Wales, and Northern Ireland, there is no statutory age limit at which a child can change their name without parental consent, but by convention it is accepted to be the age of 16.  In Scotland it has in effect been set by statute at 16, since the Children (Scotland) Act was passed in 1995.

But in general — for a child of any age — when the child has sufficient understanding and intelligence to make their own decision about any matter (except for certain things which are set by statute, such as the age of consent, or driving a car), then it is the child's right to make that decision.  The problem is deciding at what age a child reaches that point — which will depend on the child's age, maturity, intelligence, and the matter in question.

The older a child is, the more likely it is that a court will allow a child to make their own decision about changing their name, even when opposed by one or more parents.

On the other hand, a child who is still subject to a Residence Order, for example, must still have parental consent even if they are over 16.

But, by convention (that is, when the matter has not been decided in court, and there are no other court orders in force), it is presumed that the child can decide for themselves about changing their name at the age of 16.

☞ Read more about the options available to 16 and 17-year-olds.

Children under 16

If none of a child’s parents / guardians agree with a child (under 16) having their name changed, then the child themself can apply for a court order to get permission from a court for their name to be changed.  The child will normally need to get permission from the court before they can make such an application.