The United States has two conflicting legal traditions concerning middle names as legal identification. Both traditions are based on the same English common law principle that, in legal matters, a person should be identified by both his or her “christian name” and a surname. However, the traditions disagree on what constitutes a person’s christian name.
One tradition follows English precedent in defining christian name as the name given a person at baptism (See ”One Christian Name”). In this tradition, all names given at baptism are recognized as parts of the christian name, and a middle name is essential to a person’s legal identification if it is the name by which the person is known.
The other tradition holds a uniquely American definition of christian name as only the first of a person’s forenames. In this tradition, the first name is the only forename essential to legal identification, and any middle name is “immaterial surplusage” that can be omitted or even wrongly stated (See ”The New York Rule”).
English Precedent: Full Baptismal Name as Legal Identification
Many early English courts adhered to a strict requirement that christian names be stated in legal matters exactly as given at baptism, so their rulings often reflected adherence to form rather than determining identity. In Evans v. King (1745), the court ruled that a man could not be sued as “Henry King, otherwise Henry Vaughn King” because “Henry (alone)” and Henry Vaughn were two different christian names and he could not have both. In Arbouin v. Willoughby (1815), the court set aside proceedings against Hans William Willoughby, sued as William Willoughby, on the ground that “the defendant, having two christian names, is sued by only one of them”(1).
Courts that insisted on precision in stating the christian name required that all of its parts be stated in full, with none represented by an initial letter. In Ogden v. Barker (1831) the court ruled that “If a defendant, having two christian names [William Archibald], is arrested on process describing him by one christian name at full length and the initial of the other [William A.], it is ground for cancelling the bail bond.” In Nash v. Collier (1847), the court said even a third given name must be stated in full. A declaration identifying the defendant as William Henry W. Collier was faulty because it had given “only a portion of the christian name.” In Kinnersley v. Knott (1849), the court said the defendant’s name had not been sufficiently stated as John M. Knott because the letter M must be “understood as an initial only of the christian name.” During deliberations, one of the judges, perhaps aware of a United States ruling that middle-name initials could be “stricken out or disregarded” (Keane v. Meade, 28 U.S. 1), asked if there were some English ruling that might permit such disregard of the initial M. The court said no (2).
English Precedent: One Baptismal Name Sufficient for Legal Identification
While some English courts insisted on precision in stating the complete christian name, others ruled that inasmuch as the function of a name is to identify, variance from the exact christian name was immaterial if identity could be established through other means. In these cases, statement of only one of several christian names was considered adequate if it was the name by which the person was known–regardless of its position in the sequence of forenames.
One case that used this approach was Pougett v. Tomkyns. In 1753, Parliament had passed a Marriage Act designed to prevent fraudulent marriages, requiring couples intending to marry to either obtain a license or have the priest publish a marriage banns, an official notice of intent to marry, stating each party’s ”true christian and surname.” The term true christian and surname was as close as English common law came to requiring a specific form of name in a legal document. In 1812 a Consistory Court, which had jurisdiction over issues involving marriage, ruled that while strict interpretation of the Marriage Act required publication of all names given at baptism, omission of a name by which the person was not known—what the court called a “dormant” name—would not be so great a variance as to invalidate the marriage. The case at hand concerned a young man universally known by his middle name, Peter, who had given only his first name, William, in the banns. The judge found the omission of his middle name a deliberate attempt to conceal identity, which amounted to fraud and rendered the marriage null and void (3).
In another case, a man who used only his middle name in business dealings tried to get a suit against him dismissed on the same ground that a similar suit against him had been quashed the previous year—that “the defendant, having two christian names, is sued by only one of them” ( Arbouin v. Willoughby, cited above). This time, however, the plaintiff showed that the defendant, Hans William Willoughby, had purchased goods and received credit as William Willoughby. The judge ruled that after the defendant himself had omitted one of his christian names in transacting business, he could not then ask that the same omission be ground for dismissing action against him arising from those transactions. The court let the middle name stand as adequate statement of his christian name (4).
English Precedent: Initials Accepted
While courts that required precision in christian names refused to accept an initial as sufficient representation of any of its parts, courts that focused on identity did accept initials. An 1801 court upheld an arrest warrant that identified the party to be arrested as W.G. Coleman, saying that in identifying the man by “the initials only of his christian name,” the warrant had not stated an incorrect name. An 1848 court found that the name I. Shakspeare [sic] Williams sufficiently stated a man’s christian name, specifically accepting the format commonly used today by people who go by a middle name—first-name initial and full second name (5).
US Courts and English Precedent
Following the English precedent of requiring the full christian name in legal matters, Massachusetts courts held that a middle name was essential to a person’s legal identity and must be stated in full or, later, represented by its initial. For example, early courts held that Thomas Hopkins Perkins could not be indicted as Thomas Perkins, because “the indictment must give the defendant his right christian name,” and that because Charles is a different christian name from Charles Jones, enrollment of Charles Hall in the state militia did not obligate Charles Jones Hall to report for duty. Later courts ruled that “An allegation of sale to George E. Allen is not sustained by proof of a sale to George Allen without any evidence that it is the same person;” that a variance between the name stated in a complaint, Nathan Hoard, and as proved at trial, Nathan S. Hoard, was fatal to the action; and that a bank acted lawfully in paying to Sarah F. Sisson funds she had deposited in the bank, even though it had been served a summons of garnishment against Sarah Sisson. In all of these cases, the courts held that a christian name comprised of one forename was a different christian name from one comprised of two forenames, and the different christian names must designate different persons (6).
Other American courts, while not viewing an unused middle name as essential to identification, still insisted that if the middle name or its initial letter was stated, it must be stated correctly. Otherwise, the difference in names must designate different persons.
• Holding that “when a plaintiff has two baptismal names and a mistake is made in the second or middle name, it is a misnomer and a fatal error,” Virginia’s Court of Appeals dismissed a judgement awarded to Mary S. Gwatkin in a suit by Mary G. Gwatkin (Ming and Green v. Gwatkin, 6 Rand 551, Va. Rep. 793, 1828).
• Ohio’s Supreme Court said the names Horace B. Westerhaven and Horace E. Westerhaven must be considered to designate different persons unless it was shown that one person was known by both names (Price v. State,19 Ohio 423, 1850).
• Maine’s Supreme Court held that the name of Henry M. Hawkins in a real estate attachment was such a “misdescription” of Henry F. Hawkins that it rendered an attachment void (Dutton v. Simmons, 65 Me. 583, 1877).
• Minnesota’s Supreme Court held that publication of a summons to George H. Leslie did not confer jurisdiction over George W. Leslie (D’Autremont v. Gaylord, 10 Minn. 165, 1908) and that in a question concerning a chain of title, it could not be presumed that William H. Brown, to whom the land was once conveyed, and William B. Brown, who subsequently conveyed the land to another, were one and the same person (Ambs v. Chicago, 44 Minn. 266, 1909).
• Colorado’s Court of Appeals held that title conveyed to the plaintiff by A.S. Deleplane was not affected by a judgment based on a summons against A.L. Deleplane (Gibson v. Foster, 135 Pac. Rep. 121, 1913).
Although these cases involved persons known by their first names, the courts refused to hold middle names irrelevant.
Legal Identity of Middle-Namers
In cases involving Middle-Namers, or persons actually known by their middle names, US courts have consistently held the middle name and surname to be appropriate and sufficient legal identification. In what appears to have been the first court ruling to use the term legal name, Judge Charles L. Benedict of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit explained:
There appears to be no law against a person’s bearing several given names, nor anything to prevent a person from adopting any one of several given names given him at baptism, as the one by which he will be called and known; and when a person has selected a particular given name as the only given name by which he will be known, I conceive that such given name becomes part of his legal name, and that he is properly described by that name in an indictment, whether it stands first, or second, or third, in the order of his given names. —US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, US v. Winter, 13 Blatchf. 276, Fed. Case. No. 16, 743 (1876)
The case before the court asked whether a man could be legally indicted as D. K. Olney Winter—with the initials of his first two forenames, his full third name, and his surname. Relying on the New York rule, counsel for the defense asked that the indictment be quashed on the ground that the defendant had not been identified by his christian name.
But Judge Benedict cited John Frederick Archbold’s Pleading and Evidence in Criminal Cases (p. 38), which, he said, made it “quite clear” that all names given at baptism were part of a person’s christian name. He also cited William Oldnall Russell’s Treatise on Felonies and Misdemeanors (2:796), which said, “A person is well described by the name by which he is generally known.” Another authority he could have cited but did not was John Comyn’s 1822 Digest of the Laws of England (3:514), which said: “As to the christian name by which a party shall be indicted, it may be that by which he is known.”
Other courts upheld the middle name as the forename essential to legal identification of persons known by their middle name:
• When an attorney insisted that a victim must be identified with her first forename rather than the middle name by which she was known, Maine’s Supreme Court said, “The name is for the identification of the person and to distinguish one from another. It would be absurd to require the use of the name not commonly and generally in use in preference to the one commonly and generally used” (State v. Peterson, 70 Me 216 ).
• Nebraska’s Supreme Court upheld as a man’s “right name” the second of his three forenames, saying, “The name by which a man always went, which he declares is his name in his dying declaration, and by which his own mother knew him, may be deemed his right name . . .” (Binfield v. State, 15 Neb. 484, 19 N.W. 607 ).
• Missouri’s Supreme Court ruled that a man’s middle name, being “the christian name by which he was usually known,” met both a statutory requirement and a Supreme Court rule for statement of a party’s christian name (Steinmann v. Strimple, 29 Mo. App. 485 ).
• Maryland’s Supreme Court upheld the legality of a deed made out to H. Oliver Thompson (Hartman v. Thompson, 104 Md. 389 ).
• New Jersey’s Supreme Court upheld the legal identity of H. Allen Shaffer as a trustee in bankruptcy proceedings (Shaffer v. Levenson Wrecking Co., 82 N.J. L 61, 81 Atl. 434 ).
• Upholding the legality of two mortgages executed by James William McGregor—one signed early in life as William McGregor, using the forename by which he was known, and one signed later in life as J.W. McGregor, using initials according to the business custom then prevalent, Iowa’s Supreme Court said: “A man’s name, for all practical and legal purposes, is the name by which he is known and called in the community where he lives and is best known.” While noting that this identifying name is most often a person’s first name, the judge said “it is not so universally the case that the habitual and common use of the second name may be ignored” (Loser v. Plainfield Savings Bank, 128 N.W. 1101 ).
• Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court even ruled that the forename a person used and by which he was known, together with his surname, met a statutory requirement for statement of one’s full name. “A name, therefore, is the title used for the identification of an individual. . . . The full name, therefore, is no more than the whole of such title as it is used by himself and his neighbors for such purpose.” The court said that to require statement of all of a person’s forenames would be to give the Act “not only a very narrow and technical construction, which serves no purpose of the Act, but even one which might tend to defeat its real intent.” Offering as example the name of Grover Cleveland, then between two terms as President of the United States, the court said, “A statement signed ‘Stephen Grover Cleveland’ would not create certainty, but doubt, as to its author” (Laflin v. Steytler, 14 L.R.A. 690, 146 Pa. 434 ).
What Is a Legal Name?
The decisions cited above demonstrate that a person’s legal name is a matter of fact rather than of law. Although the term might suggest a name sanctioned or prescribed by law, American courts have repeatedly held that it is the name established as a person’s identity. It is the name used by the individual and by those who know him. “There is no such thing as a legal name of an individual,” said the Iowa Supreme Court, “in the sense that he may not lawfully adopt or acquire another and lawfully do business under the substituted appellation”(7). Courts have repeatedly upheld the right of individuals to enter into legal obligations under the name by which he or she has chosen to be known (8). Although such rulings have generally resulted from cases involving assumed names, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court illustrated in Roberts v. Mosier that the principle applies to middle names as well. Like Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court in Laflin v. Steytler, the Oklahoma Court supported its ruling with the example of Grover Cleveland, who used his middle name as his legal name throughout his adult life, signing not only his own legal papers with that name but also state papers as both Governor of New York and President of the United States. According to these rulings, a legal name is the name used by an individual in public as well as private matters, by which he or she is known, and is, therefore, accurate and sufficient identification in legal matters.
Like these courts, the US State Department has long recognized that the name a person uses and by which he or she is known is the best name to enter on his or her passport (See, “US State department Policy”).
1. Evans v. King, Willes 554; Arbouin v. Willoughby, 1 Marshall, 477 .
2. Ogden v. Barker, 1 Dowling 125; Nash v. Collier, 5 Dowling & Lowndes, 341, and 10 Law Times 163 [also reported as Nash v. Calder, 5 Manning, Granger, and Scott, 177); Kinnersley v. Knott, 7 Dowling & Lowndes, 128.
3. Pougett v. Tomkyns, 1 Phillimore 499; 3 Maule & Selwyn, 262n.
4. Arbouin v. Willoughby, 1 Marshall, 477 (1815); Walker v. Willoughby, 2 Marshall, 230 (1816).
5. Howell v. Coleman, 2 Bosanquet & Puller, 466; Lomax v. Landells, 5 Dowling and Lowndes, 396.
6. Commonwealth v. Perkins, 1 Pick. 388, 1822; Commonwealth v. Hall, 3 Pick. 262, 1825; Commonwealth v. Shearman , 11 Cush. 546, 1853; Commonwealth v. McAvoy, 16 Gray 235, 1860; Terry v. Sisson, 125 Mass. 560, 1878.
7. Loser v. Plainfield Savings Bank, 128 N.W. 1101, 1911.
8. Bell v. Sun Printing Co., 42 N.Y Super. Ct. 567 (1878); Lindon v. First National Bank 10 F. 894, (1882); In re McUlta 189 F. 250 (1911); Roberts v. Mosier, OK 207, 35 Okla. 691, 132 P. 678, 1913; Coppage v. Kansas, 236 U.S. 1 (1915).