In recent weeks, several readers have taken issue with the idea that a man with “Jr.” appended to his name should drop it within two years of his father’s death. In our LawProse Lesson of May 2013 (#120), we cited six authorities published from 1937 to 2003 insisting that the “Jr.” be dropped upon the father’s death. Concededly, this position seems a little callous and arguably disrespectful. The trend today is for Juniors to retain the label no matter how long ago the father died.
There are practical reasons for keeping “Jr.,” as some of my correspondents point out. R. Matthew Pettigrew Jr. says that the old rule might have made sense until computers took over our lives: “My father died more than 20 years ago, but it would be very difficult for me to drop the label ‘Jr.’ For the purposes of the IRS, the Social Security Administration, voter-registration records, my driving license, my credit cards, my school records, my bar admissions in three states, and my passport, I will be a Junior for the rest of my life. And I kind of like it that way.”
Norman G. Tabler Jr. suggests both pragmatic and legal reasons for retaining the “Jr.”: “First, because the suffix appears on one’s birth certificate, draft card, driver’s license, Medicare and Social Security cards, academic and military records, and various proofs of ownership (not to mention airline records and the like), safely dropping the suffix would likely require a mountain of paperwork—perhaps a judicial order in many jurisdictions. I have often thought about dropping the suffix, mainly because of the effort involved in typing the five extra characters—yes, I use the commas—but this first consideration has always stopped me cold. The second matter is less practical, but for me it has some weight. It’s the fact that unlike ‘Sr.’ and various prefixes such as ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.,’ the suffixes ‘Jr.’ and ‘III’ are actually part of a person’s official, legal name. They appear on the formal record of one’s birth. To my mind, that clouds the issue of whether keeping or dropping them is simply a matter of usage.”
Finally, Eric Witte (not a Junior) notes the potential problem of posthumous dropping: “Martin Luther King Jr.’s father died in 1984. Is it no longer appropriate to refer to the civil-rights leader as Jr.?”
So it’s time for etiquette authorities and usage guides to update their guidance in a realistic way. No more insistence on dropping “Jr.” after one’s father’s death. As Michael Taglieri said in a message to me, “In the modern world, a rule that a man drops ‘Jr.’ when his father dies would be ridiculously complicated.”
Fifty years from now, look for baronial-sounding VI’s and VII’s. But let’s not be at sixes and sevens about that yet.
Garner’s Modern American Usage 554-56 (3d ed. 2009).