How To Change Your Name: Understanding The Legal Process

Have you ever wondered how to change your name? The legal process might be more complicated than you think.

Whether you’re getting married, switching back to your maiden name after a divorce, looking for a name that better fits your identity, or just looking for a change of pace, changing your name is a way to adjust your identity to make you feel more comfortable and confident.

What’s in a name? A lot of paperwork, apparently. Changing your name seems fairly simple, but it can be a complicated, lengthy, costly process. In circumstances outside of marriage and divorce, changing your name requires attending a court hearing and explaining to a judge why you chose your new name. You will also need to update your name everywhere that it's currently used, which can be a time-consuming and headache-inducing process.

If you're thinking of making the switch, it's important to know how to change your name before embarking on the process, so you're fully prepared.

Reasons to Change Your Name

There are quite a few reasons why someone might choose to change their name.

Marriage and Divorce

These huge life events often inspire name changes. Since women traditionally take their husband's last name after marriage and revert to their maiden name after a divorce, their name-changing process is streamlined. There's less paperwork, and the process doesn't involve a court hearing. If a husband is taking his wife's name instead, the name-changing process is only streamlined in California, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, and North Dakota.

It's also becoming more common for a couple to combine their last names into a new name by joining their names with a hyphen or melding them together into an entirely new name. This name-combining process is streamlined in some states, but not all. If you're looking into how to change your name to a combined name, you will need to research the process in your specific state.

Disliking Your Name

Maybe your parents got a little too creative when choosing your first name and you’re stuck with a name that’s difficult to spell or pronounce, negatively impacting your social life or career. Maybe your last name sounds similar to something inappropriate, making you the subject of ridicule at school or work. Maybe you’re just sick of not being able to find your name on personalized items in gift shops.

Or maybe you have the opposite problem and you’re stuck with a popular name that’s overused. Maybe you’re sick of having to stop what you’re doing and look up whenever someone calls out “Sarah?” or “Mike?” and you want a name that's a little more unique and distinctive.

Whatever your personal reason is, your name represents you and introduces you to others. If you feel strongly that you’d be happier with another name, you might be interested in learning how to change your name.

Matching Your New Identity

If you are transitioning genders, changing your name to reflect your new identity may help you feel comfortable and confident. It can also encourage friends and family to learn to stop calling you by your old name and embrace your new identity.

Embracing Family History

Maybe you want to take the name of a relative or ancestor whom you admire, or resurrect an old surname that your family stopped using over time; you might choose to honor your family's history by adopting the name and preserving it for future generations.

Reasons You Can’t Change Your Name

Most people are allowed to change their names for any reason they choose, but there are a few reasons why you might be prevented from completing the name-changing process.

You need to be careful of what name you pick; you can’t give yourself an intentionally misleading name, like a celebrity name. You can't change your name to a racial slur or anything that’s offensive or threatening. You also can’t change your name to escape debt, hide from criminal liability, or to commit a crime.

Impacts of Changing Your Name

name changing discussion

Our names are incredibly important parts of our lives and our identities, and changing them requires time, patience, and paperwork. Once you have your new name, how will the change affect your life?

Social Impact

Your friends and family have been calling you by your original name your entire life, so it might take them time to adjust to your new name. They may initially slip up or hesitate to call you by your new name.

Your parents might not take to the new name right away; chances are, if they chose your name for you, it might disappoint them to see you let it go. However, you need to remind them that it's your name and your choice. You're the one who has to go through life with your name, so it's important that you're happy with it.

Patience is key; remind your loved ones about your new name if they ever forget, and hope that they’ll eventually catch on and respect your choice.

Updating Your Name

Once you change your name, you will need to let everyone in your life know. This includes updating your social media profiles, credit cards, voter registration, license and passport, subscriptions, and so on.

This can cause a hectic period after the name-changing process, especially if you slip up and forget to change something important. For instance, if you don't update your driver's license and passport, you might have difficulty traveling.

The name-changing process requires a lot of organization and, inevitably, some stress. It’s important to make a list of all the various institutions that know you by your old name so you can inform them of the change. You will also need to keep track of all the new documents you'll be receiving, as your old documents no longer accurately represent you.

How to Change Your Name

court sign documents

The process of how to change your name varies depending on the circumstances.

After Marriage

This process is a little simpler than other methods of changing your name as it's more common.

First, contact the Social Security Administration. You’ll need to fill out a form and mail their offices a few different forms of identification and your marriage certificate. Your new documentation should come in the mail.

After Divorce

The process of changing your last name back to your maiden name after divorce is usually handled during divorce proceedings. Your Decree of Dissolution should reflect your name change.

Other Reasons

Changing your name for any reason other than marriage becomes a little more complicated; the government wants to make sure you’re not making the name change for shady reasons. You’ll need to file a Petition for Change of Name with your local court clerk and attend a court hearing.

Don’t be intimidated by the court hearing; it's not as scary as it sounds. Although the process involves physically going to court and explaining the name change to a judge, you won't need to make a hard case for your new name. The hearing is just standard procedure to make sure you’re not using the name change to run from debt, trick someone, or commit a crime. The very idea of a hearing should dissuade the name-changers who are in it for the wrong reasons.

Petition

The petition you file includes your current name, proposed name, and Social Security number. You may also have to sign the petition to assert that you’re not changing your name for criminal reasons.

You have to sign the petition in front of a witness and notary. You may need to pay between $100 to $150 to file the name-change petition, and an additional fee to have it notarized. Once the form is in, your court hearing will be scheduled.

Court Hearing

During the hearing, you’ll answer questions from a judge or a magistrate about why you want to change your name. Unless the judge thinks the name you've chosen is threatening or that you're changing for criminal reasons, he or she should approve your new name. You’ll then receive a certified copy of the Court Order, which you need to present to various institutions as verification of your new name.

You might also be required to announce your new name in a newspaper ad. If creditors or other interested parties see the name change, it gives them the opportunity to object. You’ll have to pay a fee to post the announcement.

After the Name Change

The next step is letting various institutions know that you’ve changed your name so they can continue to contact you.

Some of these institutions include:

  • The IRS
  • Your employer
  • Landlord
  • Post office
  • Your school or alumni association
  • Airlines where you have rewards points or miles

And anywhere else you might have a subscription or plan.

Conclusion

Chances are, if you’ve researched how to change your name and you're still willing to go through this lengthy, involved process, you’ve got your heart set on the new you. Although the entire process can be tedious and costly, especially if you're changing for reasons other than marriage or divorce, it's worth it to have a name that fits your identity and makes you feel happy and comfortable.

Just be sure to spell your new name correctly when filing your paperwork; having to change your name a second time because of a typo would be embarrassing!

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