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When thinking of baby names, the surname matters too

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This article first appeared in The Times.

News of the Duchess of Sussex’s pregnancy has raised a debate on the potential title and surname of the impending addition to the royal household.

It is barely more than 100 years since George V decided that the royal family would adopt the surname Windsor. In the 1960s the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh decided that they preferred a different surname and chose Mountbatten-Windsor. Yet Prince William and Prince Harry have been known by the surname Wales after their father, the Prince of Wales. In September 2017 Prince George was registered at his new school under the name George Cambridge. Unless the Queen steps in, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s child is likely to be known as Lord or Lady Mountbatten-Windsor — or simply by the surname Sussex.

The titles and surnames of the royal family are not constrained by the same rules that apply to their subjects. In the absence of the royal prerogative, changing a surname for a child is prescribed by the deed poll procedure, if all of those with parental responsibility (usually the mother and father) consent, or by the Children Act 1989, if there are objections. Since December 1, 2003 a father automatically has parental responsibility if he is registered on the child’s birth certificate.

It is not that unusual for parents to seek to change the surname of their child, often on divorce or separation. Typically, the mother will revert to her maiden name and will want her children to share her surname for practical or emotional reasons.

If all those who have parental responsibility do not consent to the change then the parent seeking it will need to apply to the court. In considering whether to permit the change, the court’s primary concern will be the welfare of the child. Family background, the relationship between the parents in cases of domestic abuse, the extent of the involvement of each parent in the child’s life, the circumstances of the application, the child’s age and, if appropriate, their wishes and feelings can be considered as part of the court’s assessment.

Changing a child’s name can therefore be a significant legal process. Occasionally, a parent will unwittingly attempt to change a child’s surname without due process, but this will inevitably lead to problems as the child grows up. Registering for a school place and international travel are just two issues that may become difficult in such circumstances.

The increasing complexities of modern-day family arrangements mean that a child’s name needs to be carefully considered when a birth is registered. For example, while it is traditional for the children of married parents to take the father’s surname, it may be that parents in a civil partnership opt for a double-barrelled surname, as is common in some continental countries.

As the royal family is no doubt only too aware, the implications of a name can be significant. It is likely to be fundamental to a child’s identity and to their place within their family and within the wider world.

This guide is for general information and interest only and should not be relied upon as providing specific legal advice. If you require any further information about the issues raised in this article please contact the author or call 0207 404 0606 and ask to speak to your usual Goodman Derrick contact.