How to File a Legal Name Change

The most common times that a person may desire to change a last name or “surname” occurs when they get married, divorced, or when a child is adopted. Other circumstances occur when a person does not like the name they were given at birth and desires to make a change. This article will provide information about the procedures and restrictions required in order to change your name.

Q: Can I change my birth name to any name I want?

A: Yes, within certain restrictions such as the following:

  • Changing your name with the fraudulent intent to avoid bankruptcy, lawsuits, other debts or to escape liability for a crime
  • Choosing a name that violates a trademark
  • Have numbers or symbols in your new name
  • Changing your name to include obscene words, racial slurs or one that would incite violence in others
  • Choosing a name that infringes on another person’s civil rights by intending personal gain, e.g. a new name that is the same as someone famous

Q: What do I need to do to start using my new name?

A: In some states like California which follows common law, the “open and notorious” use of a name is sufficient to allow one to use an assumed name. In some jurisdictions, individuals can also register the use of a trade name that is different and distinct from their legal name and is registered with the county clerk, secretary of state, or other similar government authority. In order to satisfy requirements in virtually all states, it is best to first register your new name with the social security office followed by registration with the department of motor vehicles to reflect the new name on your driver’s license. Common steps of implementing a name change are:

  • Informing others generally that you have changed your name
  • Contacting government agencies and businesses to inform them of your name change and request that records be updated to reflect the change
  • Informing family and friends of your name change and that you want them to use it in the future.
  • Using your new name at work or school
  • Introduce yourself to new people using your new name
  • You may need to file a name change form with your local government

To legally change your name without a marriage license or divorce certificate, government agencies usually require a copy of a court order that shows you have legally changed your name before they will change the name on their records. This is the reason why it is easier for you to get your social security card first, then your driver’s license. Government agencies will inform you of what other documentation they may need to change your name on their records and chances are your social security card and driver’s license will be sufficient.

In order to get your name changed on your social security card, take your marriage license, divorce decree or court order to the social security office near you to have your name changed first before you go to the DMV. If your social security number doesn’t match your new name when you apply for a new driver’s license, they won’t issue one.

Q: Can I change my name if my marriage is common law?

A: Under the common law rule, anyone can change their name. All one needs to do is use the new name consistently in an “open and notorious” fashion without fraud and interference of the rights of others. As such, you can start using your new name without needing to go to court to effectuate a change. Note that name changes not due to marriage means there is no issuance of a marriage certificate, which is an official government document and accepted by common establishments. Banks, title companies, government agencies and other private companies may not accept your new name unless you have an official court order.

Q: What institutions do I need to notify of my name change?

A: After making a name change, you will want to contact all of the following institutions as applicable:

  • Employers
  • Schools
  • Post office
  • Department of Motor Vehicles
  • Social Security Administration
  • Department of Records or Vital Statistics (issuers of birth certificates)
  • Banks and other financial institutions
  • Creditors and debtors
  • Telephone and utility companies
  • State taxing authority
  • Insurance agencies
  • Registrar of Voters
  • Passport office
  • Public Assistance (welfare) office
  • Veterans Administration
  • Criminal Justice System if you are a lawyer or ex-con
  • Immigration and Naturalization if you are an alien

Any wills, codicils, powers of attorney, living wills or other estate planning documents that you have should be replaced with new documents done in your new name. Changing these documents to your new name will prevent future confusion.

Q: When I get married or divorced, do I have to go to court to change my name?

A: No – unless you or your new spouse want to change your name to one that is entirely new. In such a case, you would have to go to court to legally change your name for government agencies. If you are divorced and want to change it back to your maiden name, or you are changing it to your new name after you get married, just start using that name. All you will need as proof of your new name is your marriage certificate or divorce decree.

Q: My new name is not being accepted, what should I do?

A: You have a constitutional right to change your name and knowing your state laws in order to determine procedure will help you assert your rights. Contact the main office of a government agency if the local office is giving you trouble. Typically you can show documents that have both your old and new names such as a recently obtained passport. Your new name may appear with an “AKA” (also known as). You can also obtain a court order as proof that you have a new name.

Q: Can a minor change their name?

A: Yes, but a court order is needed and it should be:

  • submitted by an adult giving parental consent and stating the reason for the name change
  • for a significant reason such as an adoption or name change to that of a step parent with the consent of both parents

Changing a minor’s name is not equal to a legal adoption and can not relieve the parent of responsibility to the minor. For example, when a minor child changes his name to that of his step father, the biological father is still responsible to pay child support. In the case of an adoption, the original birth certificate can sometimes be changed as well.

Q: Can a legal alien change their name?

A: Yes, but they must obtain a federal court order to change their name after they become a United States citizen.

Michael M Wechsler, Esq.

Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of TheLaw.com and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at Zedge.net and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.

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