Even a Non-Citizen May Change Her Name

In re Application of Xiangjing Zhan, 424 N.J. Super. 231 (App. Div. 2012).  A permanent resident alien sought to invoke New Jersey’s name change statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:52-1 to -4, to change his minor daughter’s first name to “Michelle.”  A Law Division judge denied that request because the daughter was not a United States citizen.  The judge distinguished a prior case, Application of Pirlamarla, 208 N.J. Super. 112 (Law Div. 1985), which had applied the name change statute to permanent resident aliens, on the grounds that Pirlamarla was a “pre-9/11” case.  The Appellate Division reversed and held that the benefits of the name change statute are not limited to United States citizens.  Judge Reisner wrote the panel’s opinion.

Judge Reisner began by noting that the common law “allows name changes without judicial approval and without a public record of the change.”  Because denial of a name change application “is contrary to the common law and statutory policy in favor of granting such relief,” there must be “substantial reasons” to deny an application.  That standard was not met here, and the panel found that the Law Division’s rejection of the name change was an abuse of discretion.

As a matter of statutory interpretation, the name change statute permits “any person” to seek a name change.  Judge Reisner noted that “‘any person’ … does not limit relief to citizens.”  The Court Rule applicable to name changes, Rule 4:72-1 to -4, likewise is not limited to citizens.  “If the Legislature intended the name change statute to apply only to ‘citizens,’ it would have said so, as it has in other statutes.”  Moreover, other states have construed their name change statutes to apply to non-citizens, including at least one case that came after September 11, 2001.

Judge Reisner also rejected the idea that federal law preempted state law in this area or that allowing permanent resident aliens to change their names would imperil national security.  Federal law and publications of federal agencies seem expressly to contemplate the possibility of name changes by permanent resident aliens, and no statute appears to forbid that.  Besides, a name change proceeding would ensure that there is a public record of the name change, which could enhance security.  The panel therefore remanded the matter for consideration of the name change application on its merits.

Judge Reisner and the panel made a wise decision.  In these times, t is too easy, even for courts, to invoke September 11 in contexts where it does not belong.  The name change statute and the Court Rule are not limited to citizens, and federal law and policy does not call for a different result.