Changing Your Name: The Basics

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You may be thinking of changing your name for any number of reasons -- perhaps you're getting married or divorced, or maybe you just want a name that suits you better. Whatever the reason, changing your name is a pretty simple process in most places; you can often do it yourself, without the help of a lawyer.

Why Change Your Name

Every year, thousands of people officially change their names. These are some common situations in which people seek a name change:

Name changes after marriage, divorce, or annulment. A woman may legally keep her birth name when she marries or she may adopt her husband’s surname -- and in some states a man can now take his wife’s name as well. A husband and wife can change their last names to a combination of the two or something altogether different. Upon divorce or annulment, a spouse who has been using the other spouse’s name may revert back to a birth or former name. In states where same-sex marriage or its legal equivalent is available, one partner in a same-sex couple may also change his or her last name to the other partner's, or the couple may hyphenate their name.

Name changes for unmarried couples. A couple need not be legally married to assume the same last name. For example, some same-sex couples choose to use the same last name as part of demonstrating their commitment to one another. The name may be the last name of one member of the couple, a hyphenated combination of the names, or an altogether different name that the couple shares.

Children’s names. Often, a divorced parent with sole custody of the children wants to make sure the children have the same last name as the parent. If the custodial parent has changed her name since the marriage, she may want to change the children’s names as well. Sometimes legal guardians prefer a child to have their last name. Other times, mature children have a preference for a certain name.

Immigrant names. Perhaps your great-grandfather changed his name -- or had his name changed for him -- when he came to the United States in the 1880s. As Americans rediscover their heritages, some want to change back to their original ancestral names. Of course, there is also the reverse situation -- for someone who feels no connection with a heavy six-syllable name, shortening the name or changing it altogether may be an attractive idea.

Lifestyle and convenience. Why be called Rudolph, Marguerite, or MaryAnn when you feel that Glenn, Jennifer, or Penelope better expresses the real you?  You can be as creative as you want in selecting your name—only a few legal limitations exist on choice of name. (These are discussed below.)

Name changes for transgender people. If you have changed your sex, you may change your name to go with it, as well as your birth certificate under some circumstances.

Religious and political names. Some people may wish to change their names to reflect religious or political beliefs. Famous political and religious leaders who have done this include Mother Teresa and Malcolm X.

Restrictions on Changing Your Name

There are some restrictions on what you may choose as your new name. Generally, the limits are as follows:

  • You cannot choose a name with fraudulent intent -- meaning you intend to do something illegal. For example, you cannot legally change your name to avoid paying debts, keep from getting sued, or get away with a crime.
  • Your new name cannot interfere with the rights of others, which generally is defined as choosing the name of a famous person with the intent to mislead. For example, most judges will not approve your renaming yourself George Bush or Barack Obama unless you have a convincing reason not related to the famous politicians.
  • You cannot use a name that would be intentionally confusing. This might be a number or punctuation -- for example, "10," "III," or "?." (Minnesota's Supreme Court once ruled that a man who wanted to change his name to the number "1069" could not legally do so, but suggested that "Ten Sixty-Nine" might be acceptable.)
  • You cannot choose a name that is a racial slur.
  • You cannot choose a name that could be considered a "fighting word," which includes threatening or obscene words, or words likely to incite violence.

How to Change Your Name

In many cases, such as when you are getting married, divorced, or adopting a child, your name change can be easily handled as part of those legal proceedings. For example, if you are getting married and want to take your spouse's name, you can use a certified copy of your marriage certificate to prove your new name. For name changes obtained during other legal proceedings, you can prove your new name using an order signed by the judge.

If your name change isn’t part of another legal proceeding, how to proceed depends on the rules in your state. Traditionally, most states allowed people to change their names by usage, without going to court. A name change  by usage is accomplished by consistently using a new name in all aspects of your personal, social, and business life for a significant period of time. No court action is necessary, and it is free.

Practically speaking, however, you will probably want to get an official court document changing your name. In this day and age, with concerns about identity theft and national security, having a court order will make it much easier to get everyone to accept your new name. In fact, you won’t be able to get certain types of identification – such as a new Social Security card, passport, or (in most states) driver’s license – without a court document.

You can find out what your state requires by contacting your local clerk of court. Many state and county courts have name change information and forms on their websites. Check out the “Courts” or “Judiciary” section of your state’s or county’s home page.

Once you've completed your name change, you need to make sure you let all the relevant people and agencies know about your new name. See "Implementing Your Name Change."

by: , J.D.

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