The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has overruled a judge’s decision denying a single woman’s request to change her surname to match that of her partner – because he said it might create an appearance that she is married.

In strong terms, the state’s highest court said this week that the judge’s interpretation of a key provision in state law would create “absurd results” and doesn’t reflect how changes in society are affecting name choices.

Carol Boardman, 62, of Standish, at the beach Thursday with her granddaughter, Kali Barnes, 9, will soon become Carol Currier. Staff photo by John Ewing

“Given the variety of naming conventions in modern society, having the same last name no more indicates that a couple is married than having a different last name indicates that a couple is unmarried,” the justices wrote in a unanimous order. They sent the matter back to the Cumberland County Probate Court with instructions to approve the woman’s name change.

Carol Boardman, 62, of Standish had taken her husband’s name when they married in 2000, but he died in 2013. About a year ago, Boardman was living with a partner and decided she could use a “fresh start,” beginning with a name change. Her partner, Charles Currier, suggested she choose his last name, and Boardman liked the idea.

She thought the name change would be a straightforward process, but when she went in front of Cumberland County Probate Judge Joseph Mazziotti, it turned out to be anything but.

When Boardman, in response to a question from the judge, said she and Currier were not married, Mazziotti balked. “That presents a problem for me,” he said, according to a transcript of the brief hearing on Aug. 18, 2016.

Mazziotti told Boardman that it was “OK” for her to seek a fresh start, but it would appear to anyone who met them that she and Currier were married and “that would be deceptive.” Deception is one of the few criteria that Maine judges can use to deny a name-change request.

The judge went on to explain that if Boardman sought to get credit, sign a lease or obtain access to records, it would be done “under the misapprehension that you were a married couple, but you’re not.”

When Mazziotti said he was denying her request, Boardman asked, “What am I supposed to do?”

“Get married. That’s your solution, I’m afraid,” Mazziotti said.

In his order denying the name change, Mazziotti wrote that Boardman “admits” that the name change “would give the public impression they are a married couple and thus a false impression.” Boardman, however, said she didn’t agree with Mazziotti’s ruling or admit that the change would create a false impression.

Judge Joseph Mazziotti

LEAVING STUNNED, DRAWING SUPPORT

Boardman said she was stunned by the judge’s reasoning.

“He made some obvious assumptions that were not accurate,” she said Wednesday after the state’s top court agreed with her. “It was absurd. Chuck and I went in there that day thinking, ‘Great, we’ll celebrate tonight.’ We walked out of there saying, ‘What just happened?’ I walked out of there stunned and said, ‘Did he really just say that?’ ”

Boardman said she told James Mundy, a lawyer who had done some work for her, about the judge’s denial, and he suggested appealing the decision.

“It seemed to me like a very normal thing to be seeking,” Mundy said of the name change.

Mundy and his wife have a South Berwick law practice that handles mostly real estate matters and estate planning, but he dove into Boardman’s appeal and found there have been few recent rulings on name changes in Maine, even while society has undergone seismic shifts.

“Changes in family structure are driving the name-change issue,” he said. “It’s an evolving area of the law, and there are constitutional implications over the power to control one’s name.”

The ACLU of Maine, the Boston-based GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, known as GLAD, EqualityMaine and the Trans Youth Equality Foundation all signed onto the case and filed briefs on Boardman’s behalf.

‘Given the variety of naming conventions in modern society, having the same last name no more indicates that a couple is married than having a different last name indicates that a couple is unmarried.’

— Maine Supreme Judicial Court

Mary Bonauto, a Portland attorney who is the civil rights project director for GLAD and has been a key figure in the national struggle over marriage equality, said names are integral to a person’s identity. Her organization believes judges shouldn’t have such broad discretion to decide the validity of a person’s reasons for seeking a name change.

“People can order their families as they see fit,” she said, and names are part of that ordering. Mazziotti’s use of marriage – or in this case, the lack of one – as a reason to deny a name change seemed to be an overreach, Bonauto said.

“The marriage issue to us was a red herring,” she said. “We thought the law was clear that you don’t need to be married to change your name. Marriage doesn’t enter the equation.”

NO GAINS FROM MARITAL DECEPTION

The Maine Women’s Lobby didn’t join the case, but Eliza Townsend, executive director of the organization, said the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling is heartening.

Deciding that a woman would need to get married before she could change her name seems like something out of a long-forgotten era, she said.

“The whole thing feels awfully dated,” she said. “To assume that the last name is an indicator of your marital status is an awful lot to assume.”

The Supreme Judicial Court also chided Mazziotti for assuming that Boardman’s name-change request represented a deliberate deception. The court said there was no reason to assume Boardman was looking to deceive someone and noted that Maine law already bars discrimination on the basis of marital status, so she wouldn’t have derived any benefit from appearing to be married in seeking housing or credit. And, the court said, unmarried domestic partners also have some legal protections regardless of their names, so she wouldn’t have benefited by “appearing” to be married.

“We conclude that a person’s potential misunderstanding of another person’s marital status, without more, does not qualify as a fraud that precludes the otherwise liberal grant of name-change petitions in Probate Court,” the Supreme Judicial Court said in a summary of its decision.

Mazziotti did not return a message seeking comment.

Boardman, soon to be Carol Currier, said the broader societal issues really weren’t a factor in her decision to appeal, although she recognizes why other groups saw her case as important.

And in retrospect, she said, it could have been decided in that brief hearing nearly a year ago, avoiding a protracted appeal and high court ruling.

“I could have gone in there and lied and said, ‘I picked the name out of a phone book,’ ” she said.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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