What If You Don't Choose a Name?

May 4th 2017

For name-hunting parents, the birth certificate is the ultimate deadline. You'd better have a baby name plan before you arrive at the hospital, because without a name, they may not let you leave. In many locales, a complete birth certificate is a check-out requirement.

That last part wasn't always true. According to the Boston Globe, in the 1950s one out of every 25 newborn Bostonians received a birth certificate with a blank space or placeholder in the given name slot.

Wikimedia Commons

The reasons for the blank birth certificates ranged from the dramatic to the mundane. Most often, it seems, the necessary paperwork was simply overlooked by busy new parents with large families to care for. In that generation, the oversight didn't much matter. The kids still grew up called by names every day, like everybody else. The went to school, got married, served in the military, paid taxes, all under names that had never been legally registered. Documents like baptism certificates were accepted as sufficient proof of identity.

Then a not-so-funny thing happened: September 11. Requirements for obtaining government ID were tightened. Americans who had held drivers' licenses for decades were denied renewals without a birth certificate as proof of identity. Many of them turned to their city halls to request copies, only to discover that the legal documents named them "Baby Boy." The names they'd lived with all their lives were in legal limbo, and they had to file for formal amendments to their birth certificates in order to proceed with their official lives.

You may take this as a tale about the increasing regimentation of modern life. Alternately, you may take it as a cautionary tale about skimping on something as basic as giving your child an official name. But if you're expecting a baby, you should certainly take it as a reminder to plan ahead. Don't count on the perfect name magically coming to you when you see your newborn's scrunched-up face. (And don't count on yourself to be at your sharpest, mentally.) At the very least, have a fallback name or a clear decision tree in place. It sure beats fighting city hall.


May 4, 2017 11:43 PM

Note that even if the local jurisdiction does not require a birth certificate to be issued before you leave the hospital, the nurses will sure behave like it's a moral imperative. Moral of the story, check your local laws, and don't let hospital staff bully you into a hurried decision.

(What has changed nationwide is that children need Social Security numbers in order to be claimed as dependents on their parents' tax returns, and in practice, that means there better be a birth certificate with a name on it, otherwise you'll be in for a world of bureaucratic hurt. But IIRC, that change happened in the 1990's, so it wasn't fallout from 9/11.)

May 5, 2017 12:00 PM

Interestingly, both of my grandmothers discovered, late in life, that the names they'd always gone by were not the names on their birth certificate or baptismal certificates!  Records didn't seem to be kept quite as meticulously or accurately as they are today, and there was more "wiggle room."  Racket grandmother made her discovery as she went to apply for a passport, and it was fascinating to learn more about the family histories of both their legally given names, and the names they'd always used.


I was named for both of my grandmothers, with my first name bring my paternal grandma's name, and my middle much maternal grandma's. I often wonder, had my parents known what their "real" names were, if I'd be Gertrude Maria instead of the name they gave me. (And I'm rather liking the sound of Gertrude Maria! Very European. Trudy would be a darling nickname, too. I'm done having babies, but I'm disappointed that I didn't at least consider it for my daughter. )

May 5, 2017 12:00 PM

My husband's grandparents, who were raised in an orphanage and later adopted out to families, found out after more than 50 years of marriage that they were not legally married because their names were never legally changed after adoption.  I've wondered how they could have possibly made it this far into their lives without needing official birth certificates and Social Security cards, but I guess until recently they weren't required. 

May 5, 2017 2:24 PM

I agree with theOtherHungarian: most local jurisdictions don't actually require you to pick a name before you leave the hospital, but the nurses often seem to think it is necessary. You can file for the birth certificate without declaring the first name, and you usually have an interval of time to submit that additional information. 


May 5, 2017 2:46 PM

@TheOtherHungarian - That change took place in 1986, but the requirement was phased in from oldest to youngest* - so it would be several more years before the SSA list would (for the most part) be a list of names given at birth (an important fact to remember when analyzing the lists before then as the differences have resulted in numerous statistical artifacts).

Before that, while it was possible to obtain a number at any age, many did not do so until they started working and it was necessary for reporting purposes (and all the lists from before Social Security was establised in the 1930s are completely retroactively constructed, as no one would've had a number before then).

Actually 9/11 was probably just one of a combination of factors that led to this increased scrutiny - others include the rise of the Internet (making searches much easier) and identity theft becoming much more rampant.

*For good reason - requiring SSNs for dependents on taxes thwarted those who would try to claim fictitious people, and starting with the oldest would catch those already doing so (requiring numbers only for example for new dependents would effectively "grandfather in" those older fake dependents unless the IRS were to actively audit the case).

May 5, 2017 3:32 PM

I had to track down my Grandmother's birth certificate to get a college scholarship.  (It proved she had a Scottish parent, thus entitling me to the scholarship).  Discovered her birthdate and name had some fudging/blurring along the way.   Her younger brother only knew that he was two years younger, so his age eventually got altered (in usage) too.  The precision just wasn't so important, but nicknames to distinguish which Jane or which John you were had great importance in my family.

May 5, 2017 9:52 PM

My great-grandmother had to get her birth certificate for something or other a few years ago and found out that she had never been named! It just said Baby Girl Surname. During her childhood her parents always argued over whether her name was "Edna Jane" or "Jane Edna." (Those aren't the actual names in question, but you get the gist.) She filled it out herself as "Jane Edna," even though she's only ever gone by "Edna."

May 6, 2017 2:34 PM

I didn't have a name on my birth certificate until I was about 10. I'm not sure how I left the hospital without a name, but it was 1979, so I'm sure it wasn't a requirement. I know my parents argued about my name, my mom wanted to give me a more "hippy" name, while my dad wanted a "normal" name. Normal won out, I turned out to be one of 5 Jennifer's in my class. 

However, until I was 10, my official name was officially blank. It's always a funny story to tell people. We amended my birth certificate only when I got a passport. At that time, my parents gave me the option to change my name. Being, at that time, around 1990, I was very close to becoming Stephanie or Tiffany. I'm incredibly glad I didn't!

July 31, 2017 5:47 AM

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