According to the Supreme Court, a mother who remarries after the death of the biological father can choose the surname of her child and incorporate it in her new family. The bench, which included Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Krishna Murari, overturned an Andhra Pradesh High Court decision that ordered a mother to change her child’s surname and to refer to her new spouse in records solely as “stepfather.”
The court was hearing an appeal from the January 24, 2014, judgement of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, which had ordered her to restore the child’s surname to the previous one and to show the late husband’s name in records as his natural father, or, if that is not possible, to mention the new husband as his stepfather.
According to the court, such a directive is “cruel and mindless of how it might effect the child’s mental health and self-esteem.”
The argument was over the surname that should be given to the child by the mother (who remarried another man after the death of the first husband) and the parents of the deceased biological father of the child (grandparents).
The mother had petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn a decision issued by the Andhra Pradesh High Court (when hearing an appeal arising from a petition under Section 10 of the Guardian and Wards Act, 1890) to restore the child’s surname.
In terms of the child’s father’s name, the High Court instructed that whenever the records allowed, the name of the natural father be displayed, and if this is otherwise prohibited, the name of the mother’s new spouse be listed as step-father.
The bench noted that in Githa Hariharan and Ors. vs. Reserve Bank of India and Ors., the mother was elevated to the same status as the father, supporting her claim as a natural guardian of the minor child under Section 6 of the Hindu Minority and Adoption Act, 1956.
According to Justice Maheshwari, writing for the bench, a surname is the name that a person shares with other members of that person’s family, as opposed to that person’s given name or names, a family name.
“Surname is not only indicative of lineage and should not be understood just in context of history, culture and lineage but more importantly the role it plays is with regard to the social reality along with a sense of being for children in their particular environment. Homogeneity of surname emerges as a mode to create, sustain and display ‘family’, name is important as a child derives his identity from it and a difference in name from his family would act as a constant reminder of the factum of adoption and expose the child to unnecessary questions hindering a smooth, natural relationship between him and his parents. We, therefore, see nothing unusual in appellant mother, upon remarriage having given the child the surname of her husband or even giving the child in adoption to her husband.”
The mother, as the child’s sole natural guardian, has the right to choose the child’s surname, according to the court. She also has the option of placing the child for adoption.
“To obviate any uncertainty it is reiterated that the mother being the only natural guardian of the child has the right to decide the surname of the child. She also has the right to give the child in adoption. The Court may have the power to intervene but only when a prayer specific to that effect is made and such prayer must be centered on the premise that child’s interest is the primary consideration and it outweighs all other considerations. With the above observations the directions of the High Court so far as the surname of the child is concerned are set aside.”
Case Title: Akella Lalita vs Sri Konda Hanumantha Rao