In most states, under what is known as “common law” or "usage," people can change their name merely by using a new one over a long period of time. But as a practical matter (especially when dealing with government agencies), your best bet for a problem-free name change is to obtain a court order granting permission. If you’re involved in a divorce, this can be relatively easy to accomplish.
If you know at the beginning of your divorce that you want to change your name, your attorney can include the request in the initial pleadings (either the divorce complaint, response, or counterclaim). When the divorce concludes, the final judgment will contain a provision authorizing the name change.
Courts are usually lenient when it comes to requesting a name change during a divorce. If you forgot to include a request for a name change in your complaint or counterclaim, a judge will typically allow you to amend (revise) the pleadings to include the request, sometimes right up to the final divorce hearing.
Let’s say you forgot to request a name change during your divorce, or you didn't decide you wanted it until after the divorce ended. Not to worry. Many states will allow you to obtain the name change, using your divorce case number (docket number). This is a major convenience, because it saves you from having to file a separate court case for the exclusive purpose of changing your name.
You’d have to check with your attorney and/or the court clerk’s office to determine the proper procedure in your state. In California, for example, you can complete a form specifically devised for a post-divorce name change (FL-395), and send it to the court. In New Jersey, however, you have to file a post-judgment motion (written request for the court to decide an issue). It’s marginally time-consuming, but the courts normally grant the application as a matter of course. And it still beats having to start an entirely new case.
If for some reason your state doesn’t offer an expedited means of changing your name after issuance of the divorce judgment, then you’d have to initiate a separate court action. This would involve filing a new complaint and could be a drawn-out process. And, in addition to the normal paperwork generated in a case, some states' laws may require you to publish notice of the name change application in a local newspaper, adding to the time and expense involved.
Be aware that you might have to make certain representations in order for the judge to grant your request for a change of name. For example, the court may want assurances that you're not:
Note that, depending on your state, there may be some restrictions on what name you can use after divorce. Resuming a maiden name is usually not a problem, but if you’re considering a name other than that, you should check with an attorney or the local court to determine what’s permissible.
If your spouse (or ex-spouse) is opposed to your name change, rest assured that most—if not all—states’ courts will not let that objection derail your application.
Finally, make a list of who you’ll need to notify once the court has granted your name change. You’ll have to contact government agencies (such as Social Security and your state motor vehicle commission), as well as private entities (banks, credit card companies, and utility companies). It’s a good idea to go through your wallet and your monthly bills to ensure you haven’t missed anything.
Government agencies and some companies will probably want verification of the name change before they revise your account or send you new documents. The final judgment and/or court order authorizing your use of the new name is the proof you’ll need. Make sure your copy of the judgment or order has the court’s seal on it, as some agencies and businesses may require this.
If you’d like more information on changing your name after divorce, consult with an experienced family law attorney in your area.