–by Joseph Railey
Citations: In re Feldhaus, __S.E.2d__ , 2017 WL 253649 (Ga. Ct. App. 2017)
Abstract: The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a denial of two name change petitions from Columbia County Superior Court. Petitioners in both cases were transgender males who sought to change their names to reflect their gender identity. The trial court noted that doing so would be a fraud against the state and would “offend the sensibilities and mores of . . . the citizens of the state.” Finding that there was an abuse of discretion, the Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the trial court and granted the name changes.
Two transgender males, Rowan Elijah Feldhaus and Andrew Norman Baumert each appealed a decision from the same trial court judge who denied their request to change their legal names. As transgender males, both Mr. Feldhaus and Mr. Baumert were determined to be female at birth, however, each identifies as a male. Both individuals sought to change their name to reflect their gender identity.
Under Georgia state law, any individual may change a name by “present[ing] a petition to the superior court of the county of his residence, setting forth fully and particularly the reasons why the change is asked, which petition shall be verified by the petitioner.” Both Mr. Feldhaus and Mr. Baumert complied with this standard when they filed their respective petitions in Columbia County. At their hearing, each petitioner was unopposed in their request to change their name.
Despite the clear statute and unopposed petitions, the superior court rejected both petitions. The court noted that a transgender individual’s desire to change their name from a name that is associated with their sex assigned at birth to one associated with their gender identity “presents problems for the person and the general public.” The court continued that “his or her assumed name could ‘confuse and mislead’ . . . emergency personnel, actuaries, insurance underwriters, and other businesses and relationships where the sex of an individual is relevant.” The court allowed both petitioners to change their name to a “gender neutral” name but determined that “Rowan Elijah” and “Andrew Norman” as traditionally masculine names could confuse and mislead the public. The court concluded each hearing by noting that “[n]ame changes which allow a person to assume the role of a person of the opposite sex are, in effect, a type of fraud on the general public” and that these changes “offend the sensibilities and mores of a substantial portion of the citizens of [Georgia].” Based on these reasons, the court denied both petitioners’ valid petitions to change their name.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals (the intermediate appellate court in Georgia) noted that the proper standard of review for a petition to change a name is “the exercise of a sound legal discretion.” Therefore, absent an abuse of discretion, the court cannot disturb the decision. Noting that neither petitioner’s application was opposed (in fact both Mr. Feldhaus and Mr. Baumert presented evidence in support of their desired name change) and neither was seeking to commit a fraud against the state, the court determined that there was an abuse of discretion.
In the past, the court denied name change petitions when there was evidence that the petitioner sought to change their name in order to commit a fraud, embarrass another, seek to escape some negative history, or otherwise display an improper motive. As an example, the court cited In re Mullinix, 152 Ga. App. 215 (1979), where the court reversed a trial court order preventing a married woman to restore her maiden name as the trial court felt that the name change might “confuse and embarrass” the mother’s child. Here, the court examined this same “confuse or embarrass” standard by determining that the standard was not a proper basis for the trial court to deny a name change. While Mr. Baumert and Mr. Feldhaus each raised constitutionality arguments in their appeal, the court did not consider these arguments as the court held that the trial court abused its discretion.
Absent any evidence of fraud or improper motive, and as each petitioner lived their lives as males, the Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the trial court and ordered that the petitions to change names be granted.