By: Marc A. Rapaport, Rapaport Law Firm, PLLC
Missouri case law contains relatively few published decisions that discuss the right of adult Missouri residents to change their first or last names pursuant to Rule 95.01 of the Supreme Court Rules. However, the sparse published decisions that have been issued make it abundantly clear that except in unusual circumstances, trial court judges in Missouri are required to grant petitions filed by adult residents to change their names.1 In general, the only exception is where a court finds, based on competent evidence, that a requested name change may cause "harm" to another person.
As a practical matter, the risk of "harm" exists where an applicant is changing his or her name for the purpose of evading payment of a debt or to avoid registering as a sex offender. The mere fact that a judge does not like the putative new name is not grounds for denial. In other words, a Missouri judge is not allowed to deny a name change petition merely because the judge personally disagrees with the petitioner's decision to adopt a new name or does not like the new name. Accordingly, the vast majority of name change petitions are granted.
Missouri's liberal approach to legal name change was memorialized by the Missouri Court of Appeals more than 40 years ago in the landmark case Matter of Natale, 527 S.W.2d 402, in which the Court of Appeals held:
The scope of discretion to deny a petition for change of name is narrow. Although no court in Missouri has previously considered the trial court's discretion to deny a name change petition, the advantages of the statutory procedure as against the common law method oblige this court to restrict the trial court's discretion. The statutory procedure accomplishes the change of name quickly and provides a means of notification to third parties under Rule 95.03 and Section 527.290 (RSMo 1969, V.A.M.S.). The petitioner also avoids any risk of prosecution for use of an unregistered, fictitious name under Section 417.200, supra, by using the statutory rather than common law method.Matter of Natale, 527 S.W.2d 402 (Mo.App. 1975).
As a result of the Natale decision, Missouri residents indisputably have broad rights to change their first or last names.
As noted above, the mere fact that a judge takes personal objection to the requested name change does not constitute a valid basis for a judge to deny a petition. This was made abundantly clear by the Court of Appeals in a decision that the Court entered in the case, Matter of Reed, which was decided approximately four years after the Natale decision. In the Reed case, the petitioner sought an order permitting him to change his name from "Morris Edward Reed" to "Sunshine Morris Edward Reed". Although the Court of Appeals' decision offers few details regarding the proceedings below, it appears that the trial court judge (Judge Davis) viewed the putative new name (Sunshine) as too unconventional. Judge Gunn of the Court of Appeals roundly disagreed, concluding:
The scope of discretion to deny a petition for change of name is narrow." Id. at 405. Mr. Reed's requested name is not particularly bizarre, obscene or offensive, and no prima facie evidence of harm to a third party was presented at the hearing. The lower court's general concern for the possible detriment to society occasioned by petitioner and others who seek to use the law to add a cognomen to their legal name is simply not a sufficient reason to deny the petition, particularly in light of the obvious legislative intent that such a procedure be available and by reason of the precept of Natale. Mr. Reed evinces sincerity and has certainly expended substantial effort to comply with the requirements of s 527.270. Under the circumstances, we believe the trial court abused its discretion in denying Mr. Reed's petition. The change of name should have been granted.Id.
The bottom line is clear: Missouri residents are free to select even the most jovial of names, provided that their choice does not cause harm to other people.
1 It must be emphasized that this article addresses only adult petitions, and that for a host of reasons, there exists much more complexity, and far less clarity, regarding minor name change petitions, which may require the consent of both natural parents.