Law News

The Name Game

Pa. judge sides with father in child's surname dispute

by Danielle Rodier
Pennsylvania Law Weekly
August 23, 1999

A child born out of wedlock will take his father's last name, a common pleas court judge has ruled, despite the mother's desire to give the boy her own name.

The judge admitted the father's request to change the child's name was somewhat "patriarchal and outdated" but granted it anyway, based in part on his opinion that the mother fought the change out of her own anger toward the father. In re Change of Name of Jacob Michael Brzostowski, PICS Case No. 99-1599 (C.P. Northumberland July 1, 1999) Feudale, S.J. (14 pages), Northumberland County Common Pleas Court Senior Judge Barry Feudale granted Robert Belfanti's petition to change his child's last name from the mother's to his own.

"Father's reasons, although somewhat paternalistic and outdated, nonetheless reflect a sincere and consistent effort to have his son bear a name he and his family are proud of; a name, which does carry a good deal of community respect," Feudale said.

"Father's reasons, although somewhat paternalistic and outdated, nonetheless reflect a sincere and consistent effort to have his son bear a name he and his family are proud of; a name, which does carry a good deal of community respect," Feudale said.

"Mother's motive in maintaining the Brzostowski name is, in our view, a result of her ill will, and at times, hostility toward her own birth father, both of whom she referred to as mere sperm donors and one of which (Belfanti) she alleged had gonorrhea."

According to the opinion, Belfanti and Christine Brzostowski had a child together but were never married. They did not even get along during the pregnancy. There was some dispute about the child's name before he was born, but the arguments centered on his first name. Belfanti wanted his child to have his own first name, Robert, but Brzostowski fought the suggestion. Robert testified that using the last name "Brzostowski" was not discussed.

The baby's mother eventually named the baby Jacob Michael Brzostowski. It was unclear from the opinion when she made that decision, but Feudale did mention that she testified she told a priest shortly after the child was born she did not know what she was going to name him.

Belfanti was banned from seeing Jacob for several months until he obtained court permission, eventually receiving equal shared custody.

Eventually, Belfanti filed a petition to change Jacob's last name to Belfanti.

Most children born out of wedlock have their father's last name, he testified, and if they don't, they are labeled "illegitimate" or "bastards." Robert Belfanti's father echoed those concerns in his testimony.

The paternal grandfather said he also favored the name change because the name "Belfanti" is respected within the community where the parties live.

Christine Brzostowski testified that Jacob should be given the chance to choose his own name when he is older. She said she knew it was important to Robert Belfanti that the child have his last name, but she never agreed to use it.

In his opinion, Feudale said he credited the father's testimony over the mother's. Feudale said Brzostowski used the name issue as "leverage, in anger."

But the judge also found some of Robert's testimony questionable -- such as his fears that Jacob would be called "illegitimate." That concern is not relevant to modern society, the judge said.

State Supreme Court caselaw dictated the outcome of the case, with Feudale relying on In re Change of Name of Zachary Thomas Andrew Grimes, 609 A.2d 158 (Pa. 1992).

In Grimes, the justices said it was difficult to create strict rules for granting a child's name change, but natural considerations should include the bond between parent and child, the opinions of the community toward a particular name and whether the child understands the significance of a name change.

As to the first criterion, Feudale said the parents spent equal time with Jacob. He said both parents' names were considered "good names" in their communities.

"Presently, both parents were born, raised and continue to live in Mt. Carmel. Neither name has any social stigma. Both names are good names. Neither the Belfanti nor the Brzostowski name will cause the child to suffer any embarrassment," the judge wrote.

"However, the record reflects carrying the Belfanti name is more important to the father and his family, than it is to the mother and her family."

It would be irresponsible for the court to let Jacob wait until he is older to choose his own last name, as Christine suggested, Feudale said, especially considering that the parents would potentially try to influence his decision.

Feudale's perception that Christine wanted Jacob to have her last name out of anger toward Robert seemed to color his decision.

"This court believes that Jacob Michael Belfanti has a good and loving mother, with a good last name, that now differs from [her son's], not because of who the father or paternal grandfather are, but because as the law clearly states, when naming a child there is no rebuttable presumption in favor of a parent in possession, especially when that parent is 'intoxicated with anger', which was still evident in court, but we suspect still hidden from herself," Feudale wrote.

Copyright 1999 NLP IP Company -- American Lawyer Media.