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Where taking husband’s surname is banned & how law on last names varies around the world

The SC last week ruled in favour of a child being given his stepfather's surname. ThePrint looks at the many colours the debate over last names can take on in different countries.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday ruled that a woman who remarries after the death of her husband has the right to change the surname of her child — born of her deceased husband — from his biological father’s to that of his stepfather’s.

The SC was hearing an appeal against an Andhra Pradesh High Court judgment, which had ruled for the biological father’s surname to be retained for a child whose mother had changed the child’s last name to that of her new husband.

“Surname is not only indicative of lineage and should not be understood just in context of history, culture and lineage, but more importantly the role it plays with regard to the social reality, along with a sense of being for children in their particular environment,” the court observed. The mother, being the “natural guardian” of the child, had the right to decide the surname of the child, it said.

In a similar judgment on surnames last year, the Delhi HC had dismissed the petition of a father who had sought the court’s intervention to ensure that his daughter used his, and not her mother’s, surname.

“If the minor daughter is happy with her surname, what is your problem?” Justice Rekha Pali had asked the counsel and dismissed the petition as one “without any merit”. “Every child has a right to use mother’s surname,” she had held.

In India, the debate over last names is more commonly over whether a married woman should use her maiden, or her husband’s, surname.

ThePrint looks at some last name laws and trivia from across the world.


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‘Maiden name or husband’s name’ — What other countries say

While many married women in India use their husbands’ last names as a matter of course, the practice is, interestingly, considered illegal in some countries.

In the Canadian province of Quebec, all women are required by law to keep their maiden names. Provincial law in Quebec forbids women from “taking” their husband’s name after marriage.

While the law is similar in France — women cannot legally change their names after marriage — for “social and colloquial” purposes, both spouses may “accept” each other’s surnames.

Both Belgium and Italy forbid women from changing or dropping their maiden names post marriage. In Italy, however, women may “tack” on their husband’s surname onto their own.

In Netherlands, women are always identified by their maiden names. They are permitted to adopt their husband’s name, but not in official documents.

In the US, married women may choose to either use their maiden names or the names of their spouses. However, data shows that women are increasingly retaining their maiden names post marriage.

Meanwhile, just last year, the Japanese top court had ruled that the lack of legal and official provisions for spouses to not have separate surnames was not unconstitutional.

Last name woes

Conversations around family names may take other forms too, such as when star-kids have been accused of being benefited from Bollywood’s alleged nepotism.

There have also been cases where people have felt targeted or misunderstood because of their surnames.

Bollywood actor Arjun Kapoor in an interview last week said, “If you don’t like my surname or my face then I cannot help it. If you hate me for that and write things for that, how can I tolerate that?”

Meanwhile in England, the names of Prince William’s three children — George, Charlotte and Louis — will change once his father, Prince Charles, becomes king and he becomes the Prince of Wales. All three children will then use Wales as their last name. They now use Cambridge, after Prince William’s official title of Duke of Cambridge.

William, too, had used the last name Wales in school and while serving in the Royal Navy, since his father already used the title Prince of Wales at the time.

In May this year, e-Commerce giant AliBaba was reported to have suffered losses worth billions after a man with the surname “Ma” was detained on suspicion of collusion with outside forces. The company’s cofounder is Jack Ma, a Chinese businessman, and the news had created confusion because of the similarity in their last names.

In June, Xavier, businessman Elon Musk’s daughter, filed a plea to be renamed Vivian Jenna Wilson, because she wanted to avoid any ties with her biological father.

Actor Priyanka Chopra, too, was part of last name speculations last year after she dropped both Chopra and her husband Nick Jonas’ last name from her social media profiles. Responding to the speculation, Chopra said in January this year, “It’s social media, guys. Just chill out”.

Meanwhile, an Italian court ruled in May this year that children should be given the surnames of both parents.

Akshat Jain is a student of the National Law University, Delhi, and an intern with ThePrint.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)


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