By Jeffrey Sheban with The Columbus Dispatch
More Franklin County residents than ever are ushering in the new year with new names.
Through November, 756 requests for new or modified names had been filed in Probate Court, already surpassing the county’s previous record, set last year, of 743.
Franklin County is on pace to wrest the informal title of “Ohio’s name-change capital” from Cuyahoga County, the perennial leader in moniker modification.
Experts aren’t sure what’s driving the numbers, although it could be a combination of population growth; requests for hyphenated names after marriage or divorce; adoption and child-custody issues; and, perhaps, the sour economy.
Escaping creditors is not a valid reason for a name change in Ohio, but some name watchers suspect that the current economic climate is tempting at least a few people to resurface as someone else.
“Do I think there might be a minimal increase because of debt problems? Absolutely,” said Columbus lawyer Thomas Taneff, who specializes in probate and adoption cases.
More than 90 percent of all requests for new names are granted, said Ricardo Banner, Probate Court deputy clerk. The cost to file is $108 in Franklin County, and no lawyer is required.
“Overwhelmingly, they’re approved,” said Probate Judge Eric Brown, whose office includes seven magistrates who review and rule on most requests. Brown weighs in when changes are contested or controversial.
Newlyweds and divorcees don’t require a trip to court if their name changes occur immediately and don’t involve hyphens. For example, the Jane Smith who marries John Doe would automatically become Jane Doe — but not Jane Smith-Doe.
In Probate Court, many name changers are divorced women who kept a married name for several years, possibly to raise children, and then reverted to a maiden or hyphenated name once the children were grown, said Bill Reddington, the court’s former chief magistrate.
Lisa Ludwig of Pataskala got divorced in 1994 and kept her former husband’s name while raising their teenage daughter.
“If I would have taken my maiden name back and she had kept her father’s name, it just would have been one more stigma for her to deal with,” Ludwig reasoned.
When Ludwig went to Probate Court several years later to legally restore her maiden name of Black, she balked at the fee.
“That’s my name — the name I was born with,” she said. “On principle, I didn’t think they should charge me for that.”
Ohio law sets forth a few basic requirements: Applicants must have lived in a county for 12 months before applying for a new name and must file notice of a pending change in a general circulation newspaper, which isn’t covered by the $108 fee.
Although Brown, who joined the court in February, hasn’t faced any outrageous requests, some of his predecessors have. In those cases, judges and magistrates are guided by case law and common sense.
Ten years ago, Robert William Handley of the South Side sought to legally change his name to Santa Robert Claus, which was denied in 2000 in part because the magistrate didn’t want children to one day have to read an obituary for Santa Claus.
“I thought it (the name change) would be fun,” said Handley, 63, who sports a natural white beard, weighs 350 pounds and makes social and professional appearances as St. Nick.
“I wanted to be able to pull out my ID and say, ‘Ho-ho-ho!’ ”
In 1999, another city resident sought to change his name to Jesus Christ because he thought it went well with his company’s name — the Government of the Kingdom of God, which, he said, he formed at God’s direction.
In rejecting the request, the magistrate said he wanted to save the man from his own bad judgment.
“Human nature being what it is, it is more likely that the change . . . will subject him to public ridicule and derision,” the magistrate wrote.
In 2005, a man living in a Near East Side homeless shelter petitioned the court to re-brand himself Lucifer, Lucifer, Lucifer.
His reasoning: “Upon contineuos study eyo have discovered that the Hebrew definition for ‘Lucifer’ is enlightener, so for (the) remainder of mine years on this plane of existence eyo should desire to be so.”
The magistrate ruled that Lucifer was a “domain name that is widely recognized and cannot be used exclusively by an individual for an individual identity.”
The official offered to let the man use Lucifer as a first or middle name, but the applicant said: Heavens, no.
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