Jurisdiction to Change a Child's Surname in Ohio: The Value of Strict Construction

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Published Date Written by Erik L. Smith

Bobo v. Jewell (1988), 38 Ohio St.3d 330, 528 N.E.2d 180.

 

Facts/Issue

Upon the child's birth, the unwed mother gave the child her surname, omitting the father's name from the birth certificate. The natural father sought a parentage order in juvenile court, requesting the child's surname be changed to his surname. The court ordered the change of name and ordered amendment of the birth certificate to reflect the name change. Did the juvenile court, as a common pleas court, have jurisdiction to do that?

 

Rules of Law

(1) The juvenile court's jurisdiction, including subject matter jurisdiction, is limited to that dictated by R.C. chapter 2151. [1]

 

(2) Applications to change minors' names shall be filed in probate court. [2]

 

(3) When determining parentage, the juvenile court could make any other provision in its order in "the best interest of the child," including ordering a new birth certificate for the child to reflect the judgment. [3]

 

Holding/Reasoning

The juvenile court could determine the child's surname after finding the parent-child relationship because R.C. 3111.13 (parentage order statute) let the court make any provision in its order that served "the best interest of the child," including ordering a new birth certificate to reflect the judgment. That denoted legislative recognition that a common pleas court could order the child's name changed. Because establishing parentage profoundly impacted the child's relationship with both parents, and the issue of the child's surname arose from that newly-recognized relationship, the juvenile court could order a child's name changed. [4]

 

Commentary

I believe the court erred. The statutes have remained substantially the same since Bobo.

 

R.C. 3111.13 still lets the juvenile court make orders in the child's best interest relating to the parentage judgment and order a new birth record to reflect the judgment. But that does not broaden the court's subject matter jurisdiction. A complaint to find a statute unconstitutional under the Declaratory Judgment Act, for example, may be brought in any court of record. But which court of record may hear the complaint depends on the subject matter of the challenged statute. [5]

 

Page Break

R.C. 3111.13(C) deals with parentage. The order the juvenile court makes in the child's interests under that statute must still fall under the juvenile court's jurisdiction dictated by Chapter 2151. That does not include name changes. Had the legislature wanted to give the juvenile court authority to change names in parentage actions, it would have said so directly. Courts must abide by R.C. 2717.01 (name change applications shall be filed in the probate court) no matter how inefficient that may be. Otherwise we blur the lines between the governmental branches on the fundamental question of courts' subject matter jurisdiction. The precedent allows for similar opportunistic loopholes in more harmful contexts.

 

The Supreme Court also erred logically. Parentage deals with establishing a parent-child relationship. Upon proper request, the court allocates parental rights and responsibilities. But names are for identification. How a name will effect the parent-child relationship, while a vital concern, relates only tangentially to the parents' relationship with, and rights and responsibilities regarding, the child. And the need to determine a child's ultimate name is typically less urgent than the need to resolve parental rights, obligations, and relationships. Because a child's name does not define or establish a parental relationship—much less a parental right or responsibility—changing the child's name falls outside the "best interest" context of R.C. 3111.13(C).

 

The juvenile court's authority to order a new birth certificate to reflect the parentage judgment, or a mother leaving the father off of the birth certificate, does not change that reasoning. Adding a father's name to a birth certificate differs fundamentally from changing a child's identity as reflected by the birth certificate. The juvenile court had the power to order the father's name added to the birth certificate, but not to order the child's name altered on it. Absent an expressly stated exception in the statutes about jurisdiction, the court should have held that only the probate court could order a child's name changed. The procedural efficiency gained from enhancing the juvenile court's jurisdiction did not outweigh the legal instability and confusion that has resulted from Bobo.

 

In Sabin v. Kern, [6] for example, the juvenile court ordered a child's name changed despite the parent-child relationship allegedly having been determined separately by a state agency. The dissent argued that, because the mother raised the name change issue after a custody action "counter-claim" by the father under a juvenile statute, the existence of the parent-child relationship was not at issue. Thus, R.C. 3111.13(C) was not implicated, depriving the juvenile court of authority to entertain the name change motion. [7] The majority did not address that concern.

 

And in Bowen v. Thomas, [8] the third district held that the domestic relations court lacked jurisdiction to hear the request of the divorcing father--who was listed on the birth certificate--to change the child's surname because the request came after the referee's report. Moreover, a married mother could register the child with any surname she chose on the birth certificate, which she had done. [9]

 

Courts and parents stand confused about when juvenile or domestic relations courts can change minors' names. Construing statutes strictly avoids that confusion and inconsistency.

1.
R.C. 2151.07; In re Writ of Habeas Corpus for Baker (1996), 116 Ohio App.3d 580, 582 (10th Dist.). 
2.
R.C. 2717.01. 
3.
R.C. 3111.13(B) and (C). 
4.
Bobo, at 334. 
5.
Malloy v. Westlake (1977), 52 Ohio St.2d 103, 105; State ex rel. Foreman v. Bellefontaine Municipal Court (1967), 12 Ohio St.2d 26, 28. 
6.
00-LW-2540 (4th). 
7.
Id., Harsha, J., dissenting. 
8.
(1995), 102 Ohio App.3d 196. 
9.
Id., at 203 citing R.C. 3705.09(F). 

The Ohio Putative Father Registry–the WHAT?

I am a single man. Yet I had been in Ohio for over a year before hearing of the Ohio Putative Father Registry, and then only in a Probate Law class. The professor was covering how a child could be adopted without the birth father's consent. "ORC 3701.061: A man who has sexual intercourse with a woman is on notice that if a child is born as a result and the man is the putative father, the child may be adopted without his consent pursuant to division (B) of section 3107 of the Revised Code." That section required the man sign the Putative Father Registry within thirty days after the birth to get notice of the adoption.

 

Ohio Putative Father Registry: The Basics

Unwed fathers are entitled to notice of petitions to adopt their biological children. Yet many fathers lose this right by not registering timely with the Ohio putative father registry (PFR).1R.C. 3107.062. Because adoptions are probate proceedings, lawyers practicing juvenile, domestic relations, or traditional probate law may not understand how the Ohio PFR applies.  At initial consultations then, attorneys may omit counseling fathers about the registry and refer them to attorneys with more specialized experience. But the strict registration deadline, and often unknown deadline date, demand that the father register immediately. Thus the attorney should consider counseling the client about the PFR and help him register that day before referring him. This article gives the information needed to do that.

Preventing Your Infant Child From Being Adopted Without Your Consent

Summary

Consult an adoption law or family law attorney. Otherwise: An unwed father has no absolute right to veto an adoption. You must take action to preserve your rights. Whether the mother is considering adoption or not, an unwed father should, as soon as possible and preferably before the birth:

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