May a legal name be changed?

By Atty. Eduardo T. Reyes III 

                “Forget your enemies, but never forget their names” is one powerful quote that is attributed to John F. Kennedy.

How important is one’s name? Can it easily be changed?

In the recent case of Francis Luigi G. Santos v. Republic of the Philippines, The Office of the Local Civil Registrar of Quezon City, The Civil Registrar General, and All Interested Persons, G.R. No. 250520, which was handed down on May 5, 2021, an attempt by a TV personality/ actor to change his surname from that of his adoptive father “Santos” to the more popular “Revilla”, which is his biological father’s surname, was not allowed by the Supreme Court.

First, what is a legal name?

Citing previous cases with precedential value to the present case, Francis Luigi G. Santos v. Republic of the Philippines discussed that:

“x x x For all practical and legal purposes, a man’s name is the designation by which he is known and called in the community in which he lives and is best known. It is defined as the word or combination of words by which a person is distinguished from other individuals and, also, as the label or appellation which he bears for the convenience of the world at large addressing him, or in speaking of or dealing with him. Names are used merely as one method of indicating the identity of persons; they are descriptive of persons for identification, since the identity is the essential thing and it has frequently been held that, when identity is certain, a variance in, or misspelling of, the name is immaterial.

Second, a person’s name consists of two parts: 

“The names of individuals usually have two parts: the given name or proper name, and the surname or family name. The given or proper name is that which is given to the individual at birth or baptism, to distinguish him from other individuals. The name or family name is that which identifies the family to which he belongs and is continued from parent to child. The given name may be freely selected by the parents for the child; but the surname to which the child is entitled is fixed by law”.

Third, the essential features of a person’s name are as follows:

“A name is said to have the following characteristics: (I) It is absolute intended to protect the individual from being confused with others. (2) It is obligatory in certain respects, for nobody can be without a name (3) It is fixed, unchangeable, or immutable, at least at the start, and may be changed only for good cause and by judicial proceedings, (4) It is outside the commerce of man, and, therefore, inalienable and intransmissible by act inter vivos or mortis causa (5) It is imprescriptible”.

Too, one’s name is generally permanent and cannot be changed for life so that people with criminal records can be checked and located by the proper authorities for security reasons and when there is probable cause to do so. Thus, “To emphasize, the surname identifies the family to which a person belongs. While the first name may be freely selected by the parents for the child, the surname to which the child is entitled is fixed by law”.

Yet, the law recognizes exceptions when a legal name can be changed. But it must be through a petition to be filed in court that is predicated on a compelling reason. Instances in our jurisprudence which are considered as “compelling reasons” to ask for a change of name from the courts, were explained further in Francis Luigi G. Santos v. Republic of the Philippines:

“This rule, however, is not absolute. Precisely, Article 376 of the Civil Code as implemented by Rule 103 is a remedy allowed by way of exception to the mandatory provisions of the Civil Code on the use of surnames. To justify a change of name however, a person “must show not only some proper or compelling reason xx x but also that he will be prejudiced by the use of his true and official name”. The following have been considered as valid grounds for change of name: “(a) when the name is ridiculous, dishonorable or extremely difficult to write or pronounce; (b) when the change results as a legal consequence, as in legitimation; ( c) when the change will avoid confusion; ( d) when one has continuously used and been known since childhood by a Filipino name, and was unaware of alien parentage; ( e) a sincere desire to adopt a Filipino name to erase signs of former alienage, all in good faith and without prejudicing anybody; and (f) when the surname causes embarrassment and there is no showing that the desired change of name was for a fraudulent purpose or that the change of name would prejudice public interest”.

Thus, it must be underlined that a person’s first name is freely chosen by the parents, but the last name is fixed by law, ie., it must be the surname of the father for legitimate children, or the mother’s surname for non-marital children. To change any of these requires a “compelling reason”.

To the parents therefore devolve the important duty to assign a meaningful first name to their child.  Too, the parents must be sure to protect their surname as it is imposed upon their children by law.

But whether it is one’s first name or surname, it all boils down to what the person does in their life that really matters.

Indeed, there are times when a person’s name can loom larger than the person himself or herself. Yet when a person does something meaningful to touch other people’s lives, then he or she becomes a bigger person.

Even bigger than his or her name.

(The author is the senior partner of ET Reyes III & Associates- a law firm based in Iloilo City. He is a litigation attorney, a law professor and a law book author. His website is