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Is it legal to not have a surname in Wisconsin? Note that I am not American and have no clue where to start looking for the answer. I met someone who claims she doesn't have a surname (her parents and siblings all have surnames, her story is that her parents made an exception for her and didn't give her a surname).

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    Was she trying to sell you a dictionary that failed to include the word "gullible?" If if there is nothing to make this illegal, it would be terribly impractical to go through life under such circumstances. The impracticality would manifest itself long before this person would reach adulthood. So this person's parents would likely get weary of this experiment and reverse such a choice before she would get a chance to realize it.
    – grovkin
    Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 23:30
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    @grovkin Thee are people who have single names, mostly changed by court order in adulthood. "The artist formerly known as Prince" is one well-known example. I don't yet know about Wisconsin law, but I doubt if it legally requires a surname. Yes it can make some things awkward or inconvenient, and not many do it, but it is usually legal. Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 23:35
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    Anecdotal but Indonesia only recently adopted surnames on a widespread basis and many recent immigrants to the U.S. from Indonesia simply made one up for themselves to make life bureaucratically easier for them.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 0:26
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    @ohwillieke I know of one Indonesian who lived in the US without adopting a surname, however. I suppose he had some strategy for dealing with this problem. He was a professor at my university, and he was listed in the course catalogue with his real name in the surname field and "Mr" in the first name field. I somehow doubt that he used that approach everywhere.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 7:02
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    In fact, my acquaintance originates from Indonesia.
    – d-b
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 7:08

3 Answers 3

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It is technically legal, but enforcement of such legality would face insurmountable difficulties without a compelling commercial interest.

Legality

A George Washington Law Review article states that

An influential 1979 law review article concluded that when parents agree, they “should have the freedom to give their children any reasonable surname.” Courts could disallow “a surname chosen for a child by his parents if it were so outrageous or obscene that it was clearly not in the child’s best interests to bear the surname.” But terms like “reasonable” and “outrageous” are highly subjective and give little guidance to courts on what factors to take into account.

The most relevant bodies of constitutional doctrine are substantive due process jurisprudence under the Fourteenth Amendment and free speech jurisprudence under the First Amendment. This Part develops the arguments for a parental naming right under both bodies of law, and concludes that strict scrutiny is the relevant standard for analyzing restrictions on that right. It further concludes that current laws prohibiting certain surnames and laws prohibiting diacritical marks are unconstitutional, as they are not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. Laws against obscenities, ideograms and pictograms, and certain length restrictions pass strict scrutiny, as do requirements that the child receive at least two names.

Meaning that in the absence of a state law prohibiting a certain naming convention, anything goes. But states have the power to pass laws to narrowly define what kinds of names are contrary to "compelling state interest."

A review of relevant history and laws, applicable to change of surname in a divorce in Wisconsin, concluded that, because of Jocius v Jocius, "child's best interest" is not a standard available to Wisconsin courts to empower the courts to force a change of a child's name contrary to parents' wishes. Such legislation can be passed, but it hasn't been.

Impracticality

However, some of costs associated with having a blank last name would be:

  • obtaining insurance
  • having any medical procedures
  • registering for school
  • getting a library card

and many, many more. In fact, the last two are currently technically impossible because Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction demands that "first and last name are required."

It is likely that overcoming the confusion resulting from not having a last name would turn most daily life activities into something that would require a letter from an attorney, or even a court order. Without a substantial commercial gain from this arrangement, this would be an experiment with an unjustified prohibitive cost.

Lighter side

The day-to-day difficulties resulting from the absurdities of such an experiment could be easily developed into a plot for a comedy. Personally, I was imagining a few potential South Park plot lines while trying to think through the implications of this arrangement.

The likely outcome, of not having a real last name, would be that many clerks would end up simply making them up for such an individual, in order to accommodate their computer systems. And hilarity would undoubtedly ensue.

Edit while I appreciate the "+1"-for-the-effort gesture of the upvotes, I am actually surprised that this answer has gotten as many upvotes as it has. I would gladly delete it if a better referenced answer, with more specific information, came along. I wrote this mostly to list the references which I found. The conclusion which I draw here is what I personally have been able to deduce from those references. So, please, stop upvoting. This is not a high-quality answer. And the fact that the answer is looking like it may very well be "yes" makes this an interesting question, that deserves a better answer.

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  • Why does the Department of Public Instruction have power over the local library system? I'm not seeing that in the link you provided.
    – doneal24
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 2:34
  • @doneal24 if you click on "About Us" on the bottom, the 1st line is "The Department of Public Instruction is the state agency that advances public education and libraries in Wisconsin."
    – grovkin
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 2:38
  • But which category does a general adult fall into on the link? Student or Staff? Do you have to be one or the other to get a library card?
    – doneal24
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 2:42
  • @doneal24 I don't live in WI and I did have the same reservation about that wording. But since they don't claim to only administer school libraries, I have to conclude they provide some sort of support for all public libraries in the state. I can only venture a guess as to what type of ID a non-student would be issued at a public library. And, of course, my guess would be that they would not be staff.
    – grovkin
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 3:11
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    @phoog My acquaintance is born in the US but has Indonesian parents.
    – d-b
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 7:11
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in this is impossible (for german citizens)

  • The child automatically gains the married surname of the married parents, or one of the two surnames for non-married people, or whatever is the surname of a single parent due to adoption, unknown or death (§ 1616 BGB, § 1617 and $ 1617a). After $ 1617 (2), if the unmarried parents do not take it into their own hands to choose one of their surnames as the child's surname, the Family court has to assign one of those two to decide, and if no decision is made within a reasonable time, that parent's surname is chosen automatically. There's a possibility for single parents to get the surname of the missing partner under some conditions in $ 1617a.
  • There is no provision to remove your surname.
  • In fact, under german law, the name attached to you is not your to tinker with and you need special reasons to be allowed to change any part of your name. As such an example, you are allowed to request a change of your surname in case that would be Hitler, as that surname is very negatively connotated. In fact, the surnames Hitler and Goebbels are nearly extinct in Germany.
    • Note that the "Standesamt" (registry office) can also deny the parents to use first names that are in the view of the office not suitable. And there are judgments that ban (among others) the following first names on various grounds: Dracula, Judas, Lord, Lucifer, Majesty, Pain, Sputnik, Whiskey and any town or suburb name, company name or brand. While the combination of "Anakin Skywalker" is barred by judgment, Anakin on its own, as well as Merlin, are ok.
  • To have no surname, you can't be born in Germany: In other cultures, people are born without a surname recognized under german law (e.g. an Egyptian Mahmood Ismail Issa has his own first name and then the first names of father and grandfather Mahmood Ismail Issa and no surname). Those people have to choose what shall become their surname if they want to gain German citizenship or other papers. The same happens for Indonesians without surname: The moment they apply for german papers, they can (and have to) choose from any recognized surname.
  • If those people are merely born in Germany, they are not forced to adopt a surname - or rather, a first name, as the registry will put the full name into the surname category and empty space into the first name because of technical reasons.
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  • An artist/actor can also have an official Künstlername (stage name), which can be used in parallel to their official name. Contracts, signatures can be made for the one or other. Both are contained in their passport and ID. Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 9:03
  • @MarkJohnson though Künstrlername is also special reason
    – Trish
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 10:02
  • A Künstlername does not necessarily change the original name. Lotte Lenya (stage name since 1921) was still Karoline Wilhelmine Blamauer until her first marriage. Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 10:36
  • The same is true for religious names. Field 14 of passport: Benedikt XVI and Ratzinger in Field 1, Joseph Aloisius in Field 2 Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 10:46
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In a paper in Columbia Human Rights Law Review titled "There is no such thing as a 'legal name'" Austin Baker and J. Remy Green offer five ready-to-cite proposals about the existence, or lack thereof, of a "legal name". They conclude in part (p. 162)

  1. There is no clear, uniform definition of a legal name.
  2. The name a person uses in their community, generally speaking and in the absence of a specific statute providing otherwise (which most states do not have), is their legal name.

They explain there is no coherent "Law of the Name" just as, for example, there is no coherent "Law of the Horse". Horse-related matters are dealt with in diverse areas of the law, such as contracts to buy and sell them, laws about who is responsible if a rider falls off a horse and is injured, etc. Likewise name-related matters are governed by diverse areas of the law. Baker and Green contend that many people falsely believe there is a cohesive "Law of the Name" but in fact different areas of the law, such as common law, the Uniform Commercial Code Article 9, and US immigration law have separate, and sometimes contradictory, provisions about names.

I would draw from this that even if one can find a provision of law in Wisconsin, or federal law that is applicable to people in Wisconsin, that says a single name is sufficient, one can almost certainly find a provision that it is not sufficient.

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