Shakespeare may query “What’s in a name?” but for Wisconsin parents, the question requires a little more consideration.
Wisconsin’s name change procedures, housed in Wis. Stat. chapter 786.36, make certain provisions when the petition to change a name is for a child under the age of 14.1
Amanda R.R. Mayer, Marquette 2012, is the legal projects director at
Wisconsin Judicare in Wausau, where she works with victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault and supervises the Family Law Unit, Elder Rights Project, and Victims' Rights Project.
Generally: Both Parents Weigh In
Generally, to change the name of a minor under the age of 14 with two living parents, the name change may proceed only if certain steps are taken to ensure both parents
have the opportunity to weigh in on the change.
This opportunity to be heard can be accomplished by a joint petition from both parents or through personal service on the nonpetitioning parent, as required by Wis. Stat. section 786.37(1).2 The nonpetitioning parent may appear at the hearing on the name change and object, which may be sufficient to prevent the name change entirely.3
New: When One Parent Only is Necessary
As of March 17, 2022, however, there are new exceptions to the procedure. 2021 WI Act 182 created Wis. Stat. section 786.36(1m)(c), which applies to petitions to change the name of a minor under 14 years of age with two living parents who are not filing a joint petition.
The new language allows for a name change upon petition by one parent
without notice to the nonpetitioning parent even if the nonpetitioning parent does not appear at the hearing.
This allowance applies only if the nonpetitioning parent has been convicted of certain crimes.4 The list is extensive but
essentially covers convictions for homicide and sexual assault-related crimes:
This newly created statutory language has one glaring omission: there is no requirement for an explicit connection between the conviction and the minor child.
Upon the initial reading, it may seem that the victim of the criminal conviction must have some tie to the petitioning parent or the child whose name is at issue – after all, not notifying the other parent of a name change
seems like a big deal.
The plain reading of the statute, however, does not narrow the application of this section in such a way. Based on the language, the existence of a conviction for any of the enumerated crimes is sufficient to allow the petitioning parent to use this exception to personal service, regardless of the named victim in the underlying crime.
Publication Still Required
Although personal service is not required in the above circumstance, the petitioning parent does still need to comply with the publication requirements.
While this leaves open the possibility the nonpetitioning parent will find out about the hearing and may make their wishes known to the court, ultimately, the likelihood of this happening is low.
As newspaper publications and readership decline,5 people may not be aware of what newspaper to check for legal publications, assuming it occurs to them to keep an eye on the legal notice publications in the first place.
Conclusion: Use the Forms
While the name change process can be intimidating for parents seeking to change their minor child’s name, Wisconsin practitioners and pro-se litigants alike may find the standard court forms found on wicourts.gov to be useful in the process. There are circuit court forms available to help navigate name change petitions, including a set specifically drafted after the creation of Wis. Stat. section 786.36(1m)(c).6
Form CV-481 is the Petition for Name Change for Minor Child under 14 – Parent with Criminal Conviction and
form CV-482 is the corresponding order form.
Using the forms from the Wisconsin Court website may help ensure that courts are aware of the new law and apply it appropriately.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s
Family Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar
sections or the
Family Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.
1 There is a different process to a request to change a child’s surname as part of a paternity action, which is governed by Wis. Stat. section 767.89(3m). Parents who wish to change a child’s name within 365 days of their birth may do so without a court order through the Wisconsin Office of Vital Records. Wis. Stat. section 69.11(3)(b).
2 Wis. Stat. section 786.37(1) requires a class 3 notice be published stating the nature of the petition and the hearing information.
3 Wis. Stat. section 786.36(1m)(b) provides that “[i]f the nonpetitioning parent appears at the hearing on the petition or otherwise answers the petition and shows that he or she has not abandoned the minor … the court shall require the consent of the nonpetitioning parent before changing the name of the minor.”
4 Or if a conviction in another jurisdiction would be a violation of the enumerated crimes if committed in Wisconsin.
5 Erin Carter, “As newspapers close, struggling communities are hit hardest by the decline in local journalism,”
Northwestern Now, June 29, 2022.
6 The forms for name change petitions
are found on wicourts.gov.