Panorama

From Birth for Life – Unusual Names

In Germany a name change is only possible when there are important grounds for the change.  Photo: styleuneed © 123RFIn Germany a name change is only possible when there are important grounds for the change.  Photo: styleuneed © 123RFPeter Monitariabeliogelader has a nice ring to it. But it is unlikely that anyone would want to be called Blödmann (Dimwit) or Kotflügel (Mudguard). So people who are desperately unhappy with such names can go to the authorities and get them changed.

German legislation on names is covered in detail in the Civil Code. Marriage, divorce and adoption are examples of cases where a change of name is justified. But individual cases also keep the courts busy and may lead to name changes, for example from ”Blödmann” to “Blörmann”. In German legalese, that is referred to as a “name change under public law under the law on changing family names and first names”, but it is only possible when there are important grounds for the change. The applicant’s personal interest has to outweigh any other interest. And whether that is the case depends on why the applicant has requested a name change. Under the law, names may only be changed under exceptional circumstances. In officialese, the law’s exclusive purpose is to correct unbearable situations that may be associated with using the name designated under civil law in individual cases.

“Under the rules, a change of name will not be considered, for example, if the only reason for it is that the applicant does not like his or her name or another name sounds better or has a greater impact on third parties,” explains Dr Philipp Spauschus, spokesman for the Federal Ministry of the Interior. However, family names that sound offensive or ridiculous or can give rise to frivolous or inappropriate wordplay do regularly justify a name change.

Length of names is a criterion

All are free to choose which family name they wish to use.  Photo: zimmytws © 123RFBut according to a judgment by the Administrative Court in Koblenz in May 2009, that does not apply to the mere wish to have a different name. The intention of distancing oneself from part of one’s family also does not constitute an important reason for a change of name. The person concerned in this particular case wished to document his relationship to his physical father.

In spite of the above, all are free to choose which family name they wish to use, although no-one has the right to do so. A contradiction? No, because it is not desirable, for example, for the new name to give rise to new problems. Unusual names, for example, will probably only be accepted by the authorities if they can be pronounced and written. The length of the name is another criterion. For example, someone called Müller, Meyer or Schulze who would like to be called “Moridalberedertuderupp” in future can submit an application to the authorities, but is rather unlikely to be successful. The opposite name change is more likely to be successful.

Philipp Spauschus: “A name change is justified when there are difficulties in spelling or pronouncing a family name that lead to more than a minor impediment for the applicant. The same applies to double-barrelled names and very long or particularly complicated family names.”

Titles of nobility are highly desirable

Titles of nobility may only be permitted in rare, exceptional name-change cases.  Photo: Collpicto © iStockphotoThe administrative court in Freiburg also granted a divorcée’s children, who had suffered their father’s psychological terror for years as his stalking victims, the right to a swift name change. Because they were hassled, pursued and harassed by the man, they were allowed to use their mother’s surname instead of their father’s right away.

In contrast, a woman who wanted to acquire a title of nobility was unsuccessful. She said that she had been repeatedly teased and ridiculed on account of her name, had increasingly cut herself off from the outside world, had become less and less self-confident and finally had become depressed. She said she could identify with using the name “von P.”, however. Titles of nobility may only be permitted in rare, exceptional name-change cases. Apparently, the risk of becoming mentally ill if the desired title of nobility name was refused did not constitute an exceptional case.

When crimes are involved

The local desk officer always has a latitude of interpretation.  Photo: tupungato © 123RFA woman called Beate from Münster was also unsuccessful in her attempt to change her name. She wanted to have her first name changed to Béatrice. The applicant claimed that the name Beate led to aversion in France on account of its phonetic proximity to the French word béate (meaning bigot or hypocrite, in connection with être, a colloquial expression meaning “to stand gaping”). She worked mainly in France, where she came in for a lot of teasing. The court judged that to be insufficient grounds for a name change, however.

When crimes are involved, it is an entirely different situation. If, for example, a rare or striking family name is so closely linked with a crime and the perpetrator through media coverage that even after a long time, people still connect them, the perpetrator’s family name and possibly that of his or her relatives may be changed in order to make resocialisation easier, says Ministry spokesman Philipp Spauschus.

The local desk officer is always the first person who needs to be convinced of one’s need for a new name, and submissions have to be made in writing. The civil servant has what the lawyers refer to as latitude of interpretation. He may say yes, but is not obliged to do so. The competence for dealing with name change applications is assigned differently in the different Federal Länder and can be found out by asking the relevant municipality in one’s place of residence.

Daniel Grosse
is a freelance journalist, editor and lawyer in Marburg.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
November 2012

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