What Happens If Parents Don’t Give Their Baby a Name?

San dro asks: What happens if you never give your child a name?

It turns out there are a shocking number of rules and regulations concerning what parents can name their children, when the naming has to happen by, and even a section of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child that specifically states that all people, from birth, have an inalienable right to have a name. This all brings us around to the topic of today- what happens if parents flout that right and don’t give their baby a name? And, further, what are some of the rules surrounding what names can be chosen in the first place?

To begin with, let’s start with arguably the easiest to answer both of these questions- the United Kingdom. In this case, you have 42 days to name your baby, during which you can expect to occasionally be pestered by officials if you’re taking your sweet time getting around to it. If you pass that time period, you will receive a £200 fine and, if you still refuse to give a name, a government official will name the child for you.

That said, in some cases UK officials may allow you to extend the period a bit beyond the 42 days, so long as you convince them a resolution seems reasonably close at hand, you pay the fine, and keep them notified of the progress. Further, UK parents have up to a year after birth to submit a correction to a name should there be an error in official documentation or if the parents just change their minds and want to re-name the child.

Beyond giving quite a lot of time for parents to pick a name, unlike a lot of countries on this side of the pond, the UK is also pretty lax about what names you can pick, generally having few guidelines other than it cannot contain obscenities, numbers, be impossible to pronounce, and must not contain a title that could be misleading. Should you choose to flout these rules and try to name your child SirOkkkxkxkxkuppppp Sh*tface Whistler, you can expect the Registering Officer to go ahead and reject all but the “Whistler” part of that.

In contrast, in countries like Norway and Denmark, you are required to pick from an approved list of names. In most countries that have such rules, including these two, you can attempt to deviate from the list if you go through the proper paperwork and approval process first. Failure to get prior approval for an unlisted name will usually result in some sort of fine and either the state rejecting the name submission outright or if it slips through, the child’s name may be forcibly changed later. For example, in one case in 1995 a Norwegian woman, Kristi Larsen, attempted to name her 14th child “Gesher,” which is Hebrew for “bridge.” Kristi claims the name came to her in a dream. The state, however, didn’t care about her nocturnal hallucinations, and fined her the equivalent of $420 (about $700 today). Unfortunately for her, when she refused to pay the fine, she was arrested and put in jail. She stated of this, “If we accept the fine, it’s like we’re admitting some kind of guilt.” She further brazenly stated no matter what the courts say, “We’re still calling Gesher, Gesher.”

While not as strict as Norway, many other nations in Europe do similar things, with varying guidelines generally centered around trying to ensure the child is not given an outlandish or offensive name.

For example, in the early 2000s, a couple living in Germany attempted to name their child Osama Bin Laden, a man they seemingly admired a great deal. This broke two naming rules in Germany. First, this name was “likely to lead to humiliation” for the child. Second, it was against the rules in the couple’s home country of Turkey as well, which also made it against the German rules.

Germany is also one of a surprising number of nations that require that the child’s name indicate what gender they are. If it’s unclear because it’s a foreign name, generally the German officials will simply reach out to officials from other countries where the name is common, if any, for their input before approving or denying a name.

Another example of this is France where, while they have relaxed their rules significantly about the naming of children in recent years, you still cannot pick a name for a child which might be construed as the child being a different sex than the name is usually associated with, much to the chagrin of one French woman who tried to name her daughter “Liam”.

Going back to what happens if parents don’t name their child, Germany is also one of many, many countries where if you fail to choose a child’s name after the allotted time period (in this case 4 weeks), an official at the Standesamt will simply choose for you.

In cases where the state picks, officials seemingly almost always just select one of the more popular names in a given country for a given sex of child- except in the United States, which, as ever, does things slightly differently.

To begin with, there is basically no standardization from state to state within the U.S. with regards to naming children, nor standard time period where this needs to occur. The few rules that do exist tend to be more practical in nature, for example often not allowing special characters simply because the state’s database data type for the name field doesn’t support them. There are also usually basic rules about how the last name should be chosen to facilitate dispute resolution should there be contention. For example, in Louisiana if the mother was unmarried 300 days before the birth (so slightly before conception in the vast majority of cases), the mother’s maiden name will get precedence in a dispute, whereas if she was married at the time, the father’s, unless both parents agree to something different or there is otherwise no dispute.

That said, as database systems are updated rules sometimes change. For example, after a software update, Illinois began allowing numbers to be put in names, or even the name itself to be a number, like “7”, which is what at least one couple we found chose to use as the middle name for their son, no doubt after watching Seinfeld.

There are also states, such as Alabama, Kentucky, Washington state, and Montana, that don’t even require the last name to match the parent’s at all, able to be pretty much anything you want within the bounds of the few other aforementioned rules about character restrictions.

That said, a few states do include laws concerning use of offensive terms, such as California who not only extend this to the naming of babies, but also what you can change your own name to. For instance, in 1992 California courts barred a man from being able to change his own name to “Misteri N*gger”

Moving on to what happens if the baby is not named after whatever period (usually in the ballpark of a week to a few weeks, with some buffer period after for changes without additional fees or hassle), it turns out there is no official standard here either.

To start with, Michigan, Connecticut, and Nevada do not require a person to have a legal name at all (not even a last name) for their birth certificates to be processed. As far as we can find this has never caused a significant issue anywhere, other than in one court case where a Connecticut judge needing to clarify the rules here was completely flummoxed when he tried to look into the matter, stating, “The court has inquired of dozens of Connecticut lawyers and judges, and no one has supplied even a portion of an answer to the question: How is a person’s legal name established?”

In general what seems to happen in these cases is that if the parents forgo naming their child within the allotted time before a birth certificate must be processed, no name is given and the parents are simply allowed to submit one later when they ultimately decide on one.  That said, because of certain federal requirements such as when trying to get a Social Security card, Passport, etc., as well as when trying to register a child for school and things of this nature, for practical reasons a name will inevitably be officially submitted at some point, which is perhaps why it’s not ever really an issue despite lack of official state rules.

Other states, like Ohio, simply require that at minimum a surname be given for the birth certificate to be processed and then, in Ohio’s case, they give you a year to decide on the full name.

So what about the more general case in the United States where a name is required to process a birth certificate and the parents do not give one? Well, the baby will be given a name. However, unlike in many other nations where this name would be something common within the nation, in the U.S. the name given will almost always be something like “Baby Boy”, “Male”, “Baby Girl”, “Female” or just “Baby” with an appropriate surname tacked on. In the case of twins, something like “Baby GirlA” and “Baby GirlB” or “Baby One” and “Baby Two” are also common. Exceptions do exist though for abandoned babies and the like, where occasionally officials will select a proper name for the child if a relative of the child can’t be found willing to take them in and name them.

As to the more common case of indecisive parents, these “Baby Boy” style names are a result of what hospital staff use as a placeholder in the hospital database until the parents give the baby a name. If the parents then fail to ever give an official moniker, the placeholder name inevitably gets used in the birth certificate processing, which is also typically handled by hospital staff.

It should also be noted here that studies have shown this practice by hospitals of basically giving every child the same first name if the parents haven’t provided one absolutely increases the odds of issues for the baby while in the hospital, usually in the form of mix ups with treatment and medication and the like, for example if there are two “Baby Boy Smiths” in the NICU at the same time. To help resolve this, admittedly rare, issue, some hospitals have switched to further tacking on the mother’s name, so “JennifersBoy Smith” instead of “Baby Boy Smith”. Of course, in more recent times this is even less likely to occur anyway thanks to commonly used wristbands with ID chips or barcodes to reduce the risk of screw ups anywhere, though they still happen.

To further simplify things on their end, some hospital workers will also attempt to pressure the parents into giving the child a name as quickly as possible, and even in some accounts we read actually tell the parents that it’s required by law to give a name before the baby is allowed to be taken home. However, despite what any hospital official may tell you, in the United States, this is not required. Nor is it required that in home births the midwife or you give the baby a name right away, simply that you do report the birth to the appropriate state department.

Now, while you might think surely no parent would allow their child to be named something like “Baby Boy”, it does happen occasionally. Not always about not caring or inability to agree on a name, however, some parents feel the child themselves should pick their own name, and because it’s a fairly straightforward and relatively inexpensive process in the U.S. to change the name later, using the hospital’s place holder name for official documents at first isn’t usually a big deal.

Perhaps the most famous example of this is Olympic skier Picabo Street, whose name was originally Baby Girl. Picabo explains,

At first, my parents didn’t have a name for me. My name on my birth certificate… reads Baby Girl. And that’s what they called me until I was almost 4. When they planned our first train trip to Mexico for vacation, we needed passports. My father liked the sound of Picabo, an old Native American settlement an hour south. I also liked playing peekaboo with him. My mother and father agreed on Picabo.

(If you’re wondering, supposedly Picabo meant “silver water”.)

In any event, many countries likewise make it no big hurdle to change a child’s name, usually just a bit of paperwork and a fee, so long as both parents agree or if one parent isn’t in the picture this can be conclusively demonstrated first. That said, delaying doing so in the U.S. does potentially open things up to a judge’s discretion on what might be acceptable, whereas naming from birth in the U.S. usually has few if any restrictions other than on character set.

Finally, we should probably mention that in 46 of the 50 states in the U.S., should your name be something silly like “Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii” (more on this one in a bit in the Bonus Facts), but everyone calls you “K” and you yourself accept that as your name, that is now legally your name if you want it to be. However, for certain official documents at the federal level, like passports, you still may need to get the courts to give you official documentation of the change. But outside of this, you are allowed to use your chosen name as your official, legal name even if it doesn’t match what’s on your birth certificate and you never went through any official process to get it changed. We’re guessing little Adolf Hitler (another we’ll get into in the Bonus Fact in a bit) is pretty thankful for this one, regardless of what his parent’s political views are.

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Bonus Fact:

In countries with few regulations on what a parent can name their children, like the U.S. and the U.K., relative ease of changing a name is probably a good thing. For example, consider the case of Heath Campbell who has a whopping nine children by five different women. The New Jersey man has named every one of his kid’s with a Nazi theme. For example, little Adolf Hitler Campbell, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell, and Eva Braun Campbell. Apparently for reasons completely unrelated to the names, the state has taken custody of every single one of Heath’s kids away from him. For example, in the case of Eva Braun Campbell this occurred when the couple attempted to check out of the hospital. Said his then fiance Bethanie Zito when the Franklin County Children and Youth Service informed her they were taking the baby, “I started screaming. I got hysterical. I had just been checked out. I was breast-feeding my daughter for two days straight. I changed her. I had clothes on her.”

Heath himself stated of this, “I’m not allowed to have children because I’m a Nazi… Jewish people came… and took my kids all over a name. I didn’t murder anybody. I didn’t hurt anybody. What crime did I do? Yes, I’m guilty of loving my children…. Society thinks the Germans and the Nazis are bad people when really we’re not. We’re family oriented…”

The state, on the other hand, says neither the names nor his political leanings have anything to do with their decision to take the children, but rather the lengthy history of violence and abuse in the household, which was first discovered when Heath attempted to have a birthday cake made with “Happy Birthday Adolf Hitler” made when his son was turning 6. Officials then investigated the household with the result being a couple of his former wives stating that Heath both frequently beat them and variously threatened to murder them, among other red flags authorities found.

Perhaps not doing himself any favors, in one custody dispute case in which he was attempting to get custody of his 18 month old son Heinrich Hons Campbell who was taken shortly after being born in 2011, while Heath did technically dress up for the hearing, it wasn’t in a way that exactly endeared him to the authorities. Rather than wearing something like a suit and a tie, he showed up dressed in full Nazi military dress uniform, as well as sporting a Hitler-inspired moustache. His prominent tattoo that says “Kill Judes” probably didn’t help either. (And yes, for those German speakers out there, it did indeed say “Judes” instead of “Juden”.)

Moving on to something much more silly, but nonetheless still not appreciated by the child in question, in New Zealand parents named their daughter “Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii”. When the girl was 9, the matter was brought to the attentions of the courts during a custody dispute. Up to this point, the girl had simply told everyone at school her name was “K” as she was extremely embarrassed by her name. The judge in the case, Rob Murfitt, ordered the state to temporarily take custody of the child, during which time the name was changed to something not publicly disclosed. Said Judge Murfitt,

The court is profoundly concerned about the very poor judgment that this child’s parents have shown in choosing this name. It makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap, unnecessarily…

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  • Michigan requires a baby has a Surname but not a first name.

  • This actually happened to my little sister. My parents forgot to submit the paperwork and no one noticed until she was 8 years old.
    At that time she wanted to pick her own name, fortunately for her my parents wouldn’t let her.

  • When my father was born, in Pennsylvania in 1928, he only weighed 3lbs, 5 oz, and wasn’t expected to survive, so his name on his birth certificate was listed as (boy) Bydairk.
    His parents had intended to name him Walter Edward Bydairk Jr., but hadn’t legally done so by the time of his confirmation in the Catholic Church, so he chose the name Walter John Bydairk, which is how he was known until he died.
    This did not prevent his 7 siblings from calling him Junior, even after he was married, with children.

  • I was born in Atlanta GA in June of 1977. My mother had picked a first name for me already, Jessie. However the tradition in my fathers family is the first born son takes the fathers first name as his middle name. This would have made me Jessie James, which my mother was not a fan of.

    So 4 days after the stressful 41 hour labor, the hospital staff told my mother that she was being discharged….except they refused to allow me to leave the hospital until the birth certificate paperwork was filed, which lead to her decide to open her bible and use whatever book it opened to; leaving me as Micah James and both my folks happy.

    I do not know if this was a hospital rule or a state rule, but both my folks and several grandparents that were present have confirmed the version of events, since.