Oral Argument Preview: What’s in a Name? D.W. v. T.L.

Update: on December 6, 2012, the Supreme Court handed down a merit decision in this case.  Read the analysis here.

Read the analysis of the oral argument here.

On September 25, 2012, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of D.W. v. T.L., 2011-1979.  The case will be argued at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland as part of the Court’s off-site program.

Issue

At issue in this case is whether the trial court abused its discretion by inappropriately granting a father’s petition to change his child’s surname to his own.

Background

Tricia Laug and David White, an unmarried couple, had a child, Logan.  The child’s birth certificate, signed by both Laug and White, bears the name “Logan David White Laug.”  White did not live with Logan for the first eighteen months of Logan’s life.  Logan lived with his mother, and half-sister –all bearing the surname Laug.  When Logan was  eighteen months, White moved in, however, he was deployed overseas for a time and subsequently stationed in another city.  When Logan was four, Laug and White separated.  The parties agreed Laug would be the legal custodian and residential parent.  White maintained visitation rights, is actively involved in Logan’s life, and provides financial support.  Laug has always been the residential parent and primary caregiver.  The sole dispute when Laug and White separated was Logan’s surname.  White petitioned the court to have Logan’s surname changed to match his own.

The magistrate granted White’s petition for a name change, concluding that the child would not be adversely affected in the long-term.  The trial judge affirmed the magistrate’s decision, adding that the surname change would reinforce the father-son family unit, and that Logan would not suffer any embarrassment, discomfort, or inconvenience in having his name changed at his young age.  Laug appealed the trial court’s decision.

Appellate Decision

The Twelfth Appellate District found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting White’s petition.  Laug subsequently appealed and the Supreme Court of Ohio accepted jurisdiction.

Mother’s Argument

Laug argues that the trial court improperly relied on discriminatory tradition and gender-based assumptions in granting the name change and explicitly gave primary weight to the father’s interests in having the child bear his surname.  The trial court concluded that Logan’s identification with White’s family unit favored changing the child’s name.  However, this determination relied on the discriminatory reasoning that fathers are less likely to change their surnames, while mothers may change their name upon remarriage.  Additionally, by considering White’s purported interests, and failing to consider the best interests of Logan, the court explicitly afforded primary weight to the father’s interests over the mother’s.  The only evidence offered by White was his wish that Logan bear his name.  There was no evidence that suggested the change would be in Logan’s best interests. To the contrary, the evidence presented showed that Logan suffers from developmental disabilities and has difficulty adjusting to change.  He has an individualized education program and worked with his therapist for a year to learn to write his first and last name.  Logan recognizes that he and his half-sister share the surname Laug.

Laug further argues that the trial court failed to follow the Supreme Court mandate that lower courts use a gender neutral analysis of the child’s best interest, failed to consider the best-interest-of-the-child factors required by Bobo v. Jewell, and totally failed to mention or cite the key Willhite case.  Instead, the trial court made its decision based on the father’s best interests, not Logan’s. Since the court did not properly analyze whether the change was in Logan’s best interest, it abused its discretion.  The court completely failed to consider whether the name change would result in Logan having a different surname than his residential parent, the central factor in Willhite, and ignored the fact that the father had agreed to the Laug surname by signing the birth certificate. By completely eliminating consideration of some Bobo and Willhite factors and misapplying others, the trial court committed an abuse of discretion.

Father’s Argument

White argues that the magistrate properly identified and applied the appropriate factors from Bobo and Wilhite, properly determined that Logan would benefit from long-term identification with his father, and properly concluded that a surname change would be in Logan’s best interest. The trial court carefully reviewed all of the pertinent factors from Bobo at the objections hearing, and concluded that Logan was just beginning to use his surname and wouldn’t be harmed or embarrassed by the change, that neither parent’s relationship would be adversely affected by the name change, that Logan’s presence in his mother’s household identifies him as part of the family unit, that in the future the father would be less likely to change his surname, and that taken as a whole the name change would be in Logan’s best interest.

White argues that the determination that the name change is in the best interest of the child is within the sound discretion of the trial court.  There was no abuse of discretion in this case. The trial court’s determination does not support Laug’s assertion that the court’s decision was facially discriminatory and so lacking in principle as to warrant a finding of abuse of discretion.

Mother’s proposed propositions of law:

I.  It is improper for a trial court to base a decision involving changing a child’s name on discriminatory tradition and gender-based assumptions

II.  To determine whether changing a child’s name is in the child’s best interest, trial courts must properly consider each of the Bobo v. Jewell and In re Willhite factors.

Key Precedent

Bobo v. Jewell, 38 Ohio St.3d 330 (1988).

Courts are to use a best-interest-of-the-child test in determining whether to allow a name change. Bobo established a multi-factor test to determine the surname of a child when the parents have never been married. Bobo prohibits trial courts from giving primary weight to the father’s interests in having the child bear his surname in conducting a best-interest-of-the child analysis.  The Bobo Court established that, while it may be custom to have the child bear the father’s surname, the mother has at least equal interest in the child bearing her surname.

In re Willhite, 85 Ohio St.3d 28 (1999).

Willhite extended and refined the Bobo factors, finding that the best interests of the child favored adopting the residential parent’s surname. The refined Bobo factors include: 1) how the change would affect the preservation and development of the parent-child relationship with each parent; 2) the child’s identification with the family unit; 3) how long the child has used a particular surname; 4) the child’s preference, if mature enough to meaningfully express it; 5) whether the resulting surname would be different than the residential parent’s; 6) whether the child would feel embarrassed, discomfort, or inconvenience due to bearing a surname different from their residential parent; 7) parental failure to maintain contact and support; and 8) any other factor relevant to the child’s best interest.

Student Contributor: Katlin Rust

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One Response to Oral Argument Preview: What’s in a Name? D.W. v. T.L.

  1. Bart Rosenberg says:

    From this layman’s point of view, Logans name as it appears on the birth certificate is OK. It seems as if the father’s ego is huge. If a name change would “reinforce the father-son family unit” could it not de-inforce the mother-son family unit by the same logic? How can he speak for the mother when he says “that neither parent’s relationship would be adversely affected by the name change…”? Are the parent’s relationship subject to the jurisdiction of the court? And what defines “adversely affected”? Is there some legal meaning to “father-son family unit”?

    The answer is obvious (to this writer): leave things as they are and let Logan decide when he is able. And no fair lobbying him with ice cream, dad. He can make the election of custodial parent in his teens; why not a name change, too? If he even cares.

    Just a layman suggesting a course of action for the Supreme Court.

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