Changing Your Name—Or Your Child's—After Divorce

After a divorce, many people want to change their last name. Here's how it works.

A lot changes when you divorce. Although you don't have to revert to your pre-marriage name after you divorce, some individuals choose to change their name as part of moving on. On the other hand, some divorcees choose to keep their married name so that it's the same as their children's.

When you decide to change your name as part of a divorce, your ex-spouse has no say in the matter. You might also be able to change your kids' names if you can demonstrate that it is in their best interests to do so. Read on for an overview of how to obtain a name change after divorce for yourself or your child.

How to Change Your Name During a Divorce

If you're getting divorced and you know you want to go back to using the name you had before your marriage, it's best to handle the name change during your divorce proceedings. In most states, you can include your request for a name change in the divorce paperwork. If you wait to submit a name change request until after the divorce is final, though, you might have to file a separate petition and pay an additional filing fee.

Even if your state divorce petition form doesn't have a place where you can ask for a name change, you might be able to request a name change in the final divorce order or as part of your marital settlement agreement. After the judge signs the final divorce order approving your name change, your new name will appear in the final divorce decree or order.

Changing Your Last Name After Divorce

If your divorce decree doesn't contain an order restoring your former name, you should check to see whether the order can be modified. In some states, like California, you can complete a request to modify the order without having to notify your former spouse.

Before a court will grant your name change, you will likely need to show proof of your former name such as a birth certificate or old passport. In most states, a judge will want to ensure that your name change is for a valid purpose and not to commit fraud. In some states, you can simply begin using your former name consistently, and request that it be changed on all your personal records. In other states, you'll need to complete some paperwork and get a court order to prove your name change. Check with your local court clerk or visit your state court's website for more information.

Changing Your Child's Name During or After Divorce

Historically, courts had children keep their father's last name so long as the father continued to actively perform his parental role. This rule no longer strictly applies, given the dynamics of modern families. Now, a judge will change a child's last name only when it's clearly in the child's best interests. Also, gender rules for a child's last name don't have the same hold as in previous eras, because many children today have same-sex parents or were raised by a single parent.

When deciding whether to grant a name change, courts today may consider several factors, including the:

  • length of time the child used the last name
  • strength of the child's relationship with the other parent
  • child's relationship with siblings
  • child's emotional need to identify with a new family unit (if the change involves remarriage), and
  • child's wishes regarding a name change.

There's no hard and fast rule for when a judge will grant a request to change a child's name after a divorce. Rather, judges will balance the above factors against the strength and importance of the child's relationship with each parent. In other words, it's up to a judge to decide if a name change serves the child's best interests.

Keep in mind that, even when you change your child's last name, you don't change the legally recognized identity of the child's mother or father. Moreover, a child's name change won't affect the other parent's legal or physical custody rights, child support obligations, or the child's rights to inheritance. Changes such as these occur only when the parental roles are altered by court order—for example, a new custody decree or a legal stepparent adoption.

Does a Child's Preference Factor into Name Changes?

State rules differ on when courts should consider a child's desire to change their name. Although a child's preference isn't controlling, usually a judge can consider an older child's wishes regarding a name change. For example, if a teenager no longer wants the last name he grew up with, a judge is likely to grant a name change. However, a judge will probably give a younger child's wishes less weight than other factors.

Steps to Take After Changing Your Name or Child's Name

Once you've done the hard work of obtaining a name change, you'll need to let others know. This means you should update your name on your driver's license, credit cards, passport, bank accounts, medical records, and so forth. If your child's name changed, you will need to inform your child's doctors, school, and the social security administration about the change. Some places might require you to produce a certified (court authenticated) copy of the name change order. Also, if you or your child receives Medicaid, Medicare, social security, disability, or other government benefits, it's important to update any affected records immediately so that there's no delay or loss of benefits.

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