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Appeals Court: Petition To Change Legal Name Was Wrongly Denied

Posted on Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The trial court improperly denied the petitioner’s request to change his legal name based on his criminal record, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled, because the petitioner successfully rebutted the presumption of a fraudulent purpose for wanting the name change.

In In re Name Change of Pearson (Docket No. 352377), the Wayne County Circuit Court held a hearing on the petitioner’s request to change his legal name. At the hearing, the trial court noted the petitioner had a criminal record and that, under MCL 711.1, “a person with a criminal record is presumed to be requesting a name change for a fraudulent purpose, and that’s the reason why the Court has the questions on the petition for a name change.”

The trial court ultimately denied the petition.

The petitioner appealed, arguing the trial court abused its discretion by denying his petition because he did, in fact, overcome the presumption of a fraudulent purpose.

“We agree,” the Court of Appeals said, reversing the trial court’s decision.

Although the trial court correctly applied the statutory presumption of fraudulent intent on the basis of the petitioner’s criminal record, such a presumption may be rebutted, the Court of Appeals explained. “The trial court seems to have ignored that idea. Without further explanation or inquiry into petitioner’s rebuttal of the presumption, the [trial] court appears to have simply concluded that the nature and length of appellant’s criminal history was an absolute bar to his petition.”

According to the Court of Appeals, “the very name petitioner sought to assume was more closely associated with his criminal record than the name on his birth certificate, which is a fact the trial court should have known upon review of petitioner’s criminal record, and which further dispensed with any reasonable concerns the court may have had about the possibility of fraud.”

Judges Anica Letica, Mark J. Cavanagh and Karen M. Fort Hood were on the panel that issued the unpublished opinion.

Background

The petitioner asked the Wayne County Circuit Court to issue an order changing his legal name from “Allan SQ Pearson” to “Allan SQ White.” The petitioner indicated that he wanted to change his legal name to the name that he had actually used for most of his life.

The trial court held a hearing on the petition and noted the petitioner had a criminal record, but that he failed to indicate this in the petition. The trial court pointed out that, under MCL 711.1, a person with a criminal record is presumed to be requesting a name change for a fraudulent purpose.

When the petitioner was asked why he did not note his criminal record in the petition, the petitioner explained that he thought he completed the petition correctly (he was not represented by counsel at the hearing). The petitioner told the trial court that if he needed to amend his petition, he would do so.

The trial court responded and said that if amending the petition would make a difference, it would let the petitioner do so. However, the trial court stated that it was not in a position to grant the petitioner a name change because of his criminal record.

The petitioner then asked the trial court if he could speak. The trial court permitted him to do so. The petitioner told the trial court: “I’m trying to get my [commercial driver’s license (CDL)]. Secretary of State said my birth certificate must match my driver’s license. You know it’s just a matter of I’m trying to get employment.”

The trial court responded that while it understood the petitioner’s situation, the petitioner could not overcome the statutory presumption of fraudulent intent because of his criminal record. As a result, the trial denied the petition.

The petitioner appealed.

No Fraudulent Purpose

On appeal, the petitioner argued the trial court erred in denying his petition because he overcame the presumption of a fraudulent purpose for wanting to change his legal name.

The Court of Appeals agreed.

“In this case, the trial court was correct in applying the statutory presumption of fraudulent intent to petitioner on the basis of his criminal record,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “However, we note that petitioner – unrepresented by counsel – at the very least attempted to rebut the presumption at the hearing on his petition when he clarified that the purpose for his petition was that he wanted to get his CDL in order to gain employment, and that he could not do so without changing his name because the name on his birth certificate – Allan SQ Pearson – did not match the name on his driver’s license – Allan SQ White. This seems like a particularly valid reason to request a name change and a sufficient rebuttal of the presumption of fraudulent intent.”

The Court of Appeals pointed out the statutory presumption certainly existed in this case. However, the appeals court further observed that this presumption may be rebutted – and the trial court seemed to ignore this concept.

“We note … that while the trial court specifically referenced the length of petitioner’s criminal record and the fact that some crimes appeared to involve elements of dishonesty in reaching its conclusion, the relevant statute does not indicate that an individual with certain types of convictions or with a certain number of convictions are absolutely barred from changing their name,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

“Perhaps most importantly,” the Court of Appeals continued, “we note that the trial court explicitly acknowledged that petitioner’s entire criminal history was linked to the name he sought to legally assume. That is, it would appear that petitioner’s proposed name change would make it more difficult – not easier – for petitioner’s criminal history to be concealed. In light of that fact, as well as the genuinely reasonable explanation petitioner provided as a basis for his petition, we are left wondering what fraud the trial court thought that petitioner might have been attempting to perpetrate.”

Therefore, “we conclude that petitioner properly rebutted the presumption that his petition was filed with fraudulent intent, and that it was outside the range of principled outcomes for the trial court to – in essence – ignore that rebuttal and conclude that it was nonetheless bound by the presumption to deny petitioner’s request,” the Court of Appeals said. “We note that this is particularly true under the specific facts of this case because the very name petitioner sought to assume was more closely associated with his criminal record than the name on his birth certificate, which is a fact the trial court should have known upon review of petitioner’s criminal record, and which further dispensed with any reasonable concerns the court may have had about the possibility of fraud.”

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