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Jim Hawkins: Who legally gets to name a child?

Jim Hawkins • Updated May 8, 2017 at 6:00 PM

“I don’t have a bank account because I don’t know my mother’s maiden name.” 

– Paula Poundstone, American comedienne, commentator and author

Naming a baby can involve many factors – and Tennessee law is one of them. 

Q. Who has the legal right to name a child of unmarried parents?

An unmarried mother has the sole legal right to choose her child’s first name and middle name. 

By law, her child’s surname (last name) must be either the mother’s surname or the mother’s maiden name, or a combination of the two surnames – unless the father signs a sworn voluntary acknowledgement of paternity (“VAP”) on a special form. 

If the father signs the VAP, then the unmarried mother is allowed – but not required – to give her child the father’s surname.

If an unmarried father does not sign the VAP, then the father’s name is not allowed to appear on the birth certificate.

NOTE: Once a sworn acknowledgment has been signed by both parents and filed with the state, then the unmarried parents have 19 years from the child’s birth to change the child’s surname to that of the father.

Q. What if a child’s parents are married?

Tennessee law says the surname of the child of a married couple will be the father’s surname, or else a combination of the father’s surname and the mother’s surname or maiden name.

Married parents who decide not to use the father’s surname must sign a sworn statement confirming their choice. 

If the mother was married to the father at the time of conception, or at the time of birth, or anytime in between, then the name of the father shall be entered on the birth certificate, even though the child’s surname may be different.

Q. What if married parents cannot agree on a newborn child’s surname?

After 10 days, the hospital is required to file a birth certificate showing the married father’s surname as the child’s surname. 

James B. “Jim” Hawkins is a Tennessee general practice and public interest law attorney. This column represents legal information, and is not intended to take the place of legal advice. All cases are different and need individual attention. Consult with a private attorney of your choice to review the facts and law specific to your case. Call 615-452-9200 to suggest topics or questions for future columns.


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