Names for children and adults: different rules?
Your name generally remains the same during your life. It depends on a country’s legal system and legal culture under which conditions a name can be chosen and changed. Precisely because a name is unquestionably a cornerstone of someone’s personal identity, legal certainty and continuity have traditionally been important concerns in countries such as the Netherlands. However, over the past decades flexibility and cultural diversity have also gained greater recognition in this area of law.
The right to have a name is protected under several human right conventions that the Netherlands is party to. The 1980 Munich Convention on the law applicable to surnames and forenames stipulates that the surnames and forenames of a person shall be determined by the law of the State of their nationality. It also states that in case of a change of nationality, the law of the State of the new nationality shall apply.
The approach of the Dutch legislature to name changes has traditionally been somewhat reticent. Immigration and concerns over equal treatment have however contributed to reforms in this complex area of law. By and large, these reforms reflect a recognition of the need for greater choice and flexibility for parents and individuals to choose or change their name. This article does not aim to be complete but aims to highlight some of the main features of Dutch law.
Double surnames for minors
The Dutch government passed a much-anticipated new law on March 21st 2023 which will allow parents the choice to give their child the surname of either parent or a hyphenated surname combining the parents’ surnames.
The choice of a double surname will not be mandatory. If parents do not make a choice, a child born out of wedlock or partnership will still automatically receive the surname of the birth mother. In the case of a marriage or registered partnership, a Dutch child will receive the surname of the father or co-mother by default.
The Dutch government has confirmed there will also be a transitional period for parents whose eldest child was born on or after January 1, 2016. They will have twelve months to decide whether they want to re-register their child(ren) with a double surname.
Adopted children will be able to decide whether they wish to combine their birth name with the surname of their adoptive parent(s), with a maximum of two surnames.
The new law can sometimes also offer a solution to people who have a different surname in a different country due to their multiple nationalities. Currently, one would occasionally need a name change procedure to unify one’s surnames.
If a child or adult is not a Dutch national, the rules of Dutch private international law come into play. This means that a person’s first name and surname are in principle determined by the law of that person’s nationality. This includes the laws of private international law of that country. In case a person has more than one nationality, Dutch private international law prescribes that the law of the country where that person has their habitual residence, or the national law with the closest connection, will be applicable. The bill of 21 March 2023 introduces the rule that a choice of law for one of the person’s nationalities is made. However, if that person holds the Dutch nationality, the Dutch rules regarding names will in principle prevail regardless of whether that person has another nationality which indicates another name. The latter rule has been subject to criticism, as it is difficult to reconcile with the respect for cultural diversity which underpins developments in European law. A significant change is that the bill introduces a choice of law for the law of the nationality of the other nationality in respect of minors.
Different procedures for first names and surnames
If you are a Dutch national, have an asylum status or have been determined to be stateless, a change of your name may be permitted. In other cases, such a name change procedure will not be possible within the Netherlands.
If you wish to change first names, you have to start proceedings at a first instance court in the Netherlands, whereas for surname changes you have to follow an administrative procedure and submit an application to Justis (the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security’s screening authority for those who wish to have their surname changed). Outside of this context, some people whose name is unclear or irreconcilable with the Dutch law of names, are offered the possibility of name determination (naamsvaststelling) during the naturalisation procedure.
When you become a Dutch national, this won’t affect the names you already have. However, during your naturalisation procedure it may be necessary to determine someone’s full name. It's important to note that the name determination process is typically only necessary for individuals who do not have a legal name that can be recognised in the Netherlands. This may be the case with those who have name chains in Islamic countries, for example.
Dutch nationals may request a change of first name irrespective of whether they are resident in The Netherlands. It is worth observing that (Slavic) patronyms are also considered to be first names in Dutch law. Thus, Dutch law has a binary approach in distinguishing first names and surnames only. If you wish to drop your patronym, this will therefore in principle not be possible as part of the name determination during your naturalisation procedure.
The Netherlands does not have a list of forbidden first names. However, the civil status registrar has refused names such as Miracle-of-Love and Urine in the past. To change your first name, including patronyms, you have to start a court procedure. You should put forward a serious and substantial reason for the name change. For example, you wish to distance yourself from your religious upbringing or adhere to another religion. Moreover, the name change must not be contrary to public interest. The name may not be unlawful or improper and not be a surname, unless the surname is also a common first name (such as Frank). We can lodge a petition for you with the competent Dutch court. The court procedure may take a few months.
If the petition is complete and fully states the reasons for the name change, the courts will in most cases award the request without requiring a court hearing. The change of name will then be granted, often in a matter of weeks. The civil status registrar may appeal the decision, but this rarely happens. After three months the change is automatically registered by the municipality (gemeente).
Changing your surname
If you wish to change your surname, a request must be sent to Justis. Justis lists specific categories in which a surname change is accepted. For example, minors with a dual nationality or in case of psychological distress. The full list is available here (in Dutch only).
Though intervention by a lawyer is not mandatory in this procedure, it is certainly advisable for clients unfamiliar with the Dutch system to consult a lawyer specialised in private international law. This procedure may take up to nine months and in most cases requires a stiff administrative fee.
It should be observed that in both first name and some surname change procedures, a statement by a certified Dutch mental health expert may be necessary. This statement is very important as it serves to convince the competent authority — court or ministry — that there is a causal link between the psychological distress the person suffers and the surname of that the person. We will put you into direct contact with a counsellor specialised and familiar with this procedure if necessary.
Minors with a dual nationality; acknowledgement of paternity outside the Netherlands
If the name of a person has been recorded outside the Netherlands at birth or have changed as a result of a change in personal status outside the Netherlands and has been laid down in a document drawn up by a competent authority in accordance with local regulations, the names recorded or changed this way will also be recognised in the Netherlands by the civil status registrar (Article 24 (1) of Book 10 Dutch Civil Code). Starting 1 January 2024, minors under sixteen who acquired their surname abroad are allowed to choose either parents' name or a combination of both parents' name. For example, in case of an acknowledgement of paternity done abroad which results in the acquisition of Dutch nationality, a foreign adoption or in case of an option for Dutch nationality. Above the age of sixteen, children may make their own choice for either parents’ name or a combination of both.
Adults with dual Dutch and EU nationality
Some Dutch nationals who were born in the Netherlands may wish to have the same surnames as they have or would have in the country of their other nationality (such as Spain or Portugal). If there is a clear connection between the name change and the right to free movement of persons, this result may be achieved in a court procedure. Having different names within the EU is not a desirable outcome. In those cases, a court procedure may be indicated to make a change to the Dutch birth certificate rather than an actual surname change through the Justis procedure. A recent case by one of our lawyers shows that a Dutch court will be sensitive to the argument that a person’s right to freedom of movement within the EU may be affected if that person – on account of his Dutch nationality- cannot have more than one surname. The ‘unity of name’ within the nuclear family has been recognised by Dutch courts as an important concern. Thus, if you have a sibling who has a double-barrelled surname, for example, because of their birth in Spain or Portugal, this may be a concern.
Recognition of names acquired abroad
The referred decision by the first instance court in Amsterdam is in line with developments in European law which emphasise freedom of movement and mutual recognition. Over the past decades, case-law has emerged from the (EU) European Court of Justice. EU member states are required to recognise surnames acquired in other Member States as deriving from the right to free movement of EU citizens. Until recently, this was not so clear for Dutch adults with a dual nationality.
We will assess your situation and whether your case is viable. Accordingly, we will talk about your very own personal reasons for the proposed name change. We will also provide you with an outline of what to expect in the administrative or judicial procedure and will estimate the total costs of such a procedure.
For more information, please contact Richard Blauwhoff or Vera Kidjan.