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With respect to a mother's petition to change her minor child's name over the father's objection, in addition to their doubtful factual premises, the Mark v. Kanh factors perpetuate gender-based distinctions that have come under increasing judicial scrutiny since Mark was decided. These distinctions are based on stereotypes about the relationship between fathers and their children and do not take into account (or even mention) how a name change might affect the bond between mother and child. As they are based largely on gender stereotypes, and not grounded on the best interests of the child, these distinctions raise significant constitutional issues and are contrary to the law of the District of Columbia.
Appellant Renee Monique Melbourne and Marcus Taylor were married and living together in the District of Columbia when their minor daughter (“the child”) was born. In 2013, the couple was granted an absolute divorce. The court ordered joint legal custody with Melbourne having the primary physical custody, and Taylor was awarded reasonable visitation. Following the divorce, Melbourne filed the name change application, testifying that she wished to change her daughter’s name due to difficulties in establishing that she is the mother of her daughter. Taylor opposed the name change. The trial court denied Melbourne’s application in consideration of the best interest of the child pursuant to D.C. Code § 16-831.01 et seq. In order to determine the best interests of the child, the trial court set out four factors which it cited as originating in Nellis v. Pressman, 282 A.2d 539, 542 (D.C. 1971). Applying the four factors, the trial court found that: (1) as the child was then only two years old, her name should not be changed because she is unable to make an intelligent choice on the matter; (2) the father's physical absence from the child's life for more than a year — whatever the reason — meant that a name change "would weaken — and likely destroy — the bond" between the child and Mr. Taylor; (3) the father was current in his child support obligations, has demonstrated a continuing interest in the child, has not engaged in any misconduct, and filed a timely objection to the name-change application; and (4) the father has a desire to preserve a parental relationship with the child, but in light of the acrimony between the parents, a name change would "further estrange the relationship." On appeal, Melbourne argued that the trial court applied an improper standard when it denied the name change application.
Did the trial court apply an improper standard when it denied the name change application?
The court held that the trial court erred in denying appellant’s application to change her minor child's last name over the objections of the child's father. The court first noted that the factors applied by the trial court were not established in Nellis, but were from a 1956 Massachusetts case, Mark v. Kahn, 333 Mass. 517, 131 N.E.2d 758 (Mass. 1956). The court held that the factors laid down in Mark v. Kahn were contrary to District of Columbia law and constitutionally suspect; thus, the trial court improperly applied the same in determining the best interests of the child. According to the court, the Mark v. Kahn factors perpetuated gender-based distinctions that have come under increasing judicial scrutiny since Mark was decided. These distinctions were based on stereotypes about the relationship between fathers and their children and did not take into account (or even mention) how a name change might affect the bond between mother and child. On remand, the court held that the trial court's determination whether a name change was in the best interests of the child could not be based on general presumptions or stereotypes but on individualized determinations that were gender-neutral, family-specific, and child-centered.