Making Justice RealThe Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia
Gender Neutral Test Established for Disputes over Children’s Name in D.C.
Earlier this month, the D.C. Court of Appeals issued an opinion reaffirming the “touchstone standard” by which nearly all family law disputes – including naming disputes – involving children in the District of Columbia shall be governed: a gender neutral, best-interests-of-the child standard. The case, Melbourne v. Taylor, No. 14 FM 1324, involved the request of a biological mother to have her child’s last name changed to hers. The trial court denied the mother’s request. Relying on reasoning derived from a more than half-century-old case in another jurisdiction, it concluded, among other things, that changing the child’s last name from the father’s to the mother’s would likely further weaken the bond between child and father, which can be “tenuous at best.”
The mother appealed, and on November 3, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case. It found that the trial judge applied the wrong standard, and one that reflected antiquated notions of gender and parenthood in children’s naming conventions. Legal Aid, participating as amicus, had urged the Court in its brief and at oral argument to jettison the outdated test and adopt a gender neutral, best-interests-of-the-child standard for analyzing name-change disputes. The Court agreed with Legal Aid’s position and rejected sexist assumptions upon which the trial court had relied to favor a father’s last name over a mother’s last name in this case, concluding that D.C. law must conform to modern shared values and legal standards.
We believe the Court’s decision in Melbourne recognizes and celebrates the diversity of parent-child relationships, naming traditions in different local communities, and the importance of promoting gender neutrality. Trial judges in the District of Columbia who are asked to decide children’s names will now look to the best interests of those children, and Legal Aid is proud to continue to play a role in this movement toward inclusive and gender neutral legal norms.