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How to Legally Change Your Name

There are several reasons someone may want to change their name, often after a marriage or divorce. The process of legally changing your name generally includes petitioning to change your name and using your new name.

Steps to Legally Change Your Name

  1. Petition to change your name by filling out a name change form, an order to show cause for legally changing your name, and a decree to legally change your name.
  2. Take these forms to the court clerk and file them along with your state's required filing fees.
  3. In most cases, a judge or magistrate will review your forms and grant the name change.
  4. Some states require a more formal advertisement before you use your new name, which is done simply by posting a notice in the local newspaper.
  5. Use your new name. 

Using Your New Name

The most important thing to do to legally change your name is to start using your new name. You can do this by:

  • Introducing yourself using your new name
  • Filling out forms and applications under your new name
  • Telling your family and friends to only refer to you by your new name
  • Informing your school, employer, and other institutions of your new name (some institutions may require legal documentation of your name change).

Be sure to check the requirements in your state by visiting your state government's website or calling your court clerk.

In most states, it's a rather simple process to change your name through the court system. In fact, most state government websites have forms online that you can print and use. The questions on the forms are very straightforward and may include your old name, new name, Social Security number, the reason for your name change, and a promise that you are not changing your name to escape debt or criminal liability.

Can I Change My Name to Anything I Want?

Typically, you may legally change your name to whatever name you'd like, although state marriage laws may also provide some additional legal guidance. There are some exceptions though. For example, you can't:

  • Change your name to escape debt liability or hide from criminal liability
  • Change your name in order to commit a crime
  • Change your name with the intention to mislead, which usually involves taking the name of a famous person (courts typically do not allow this, unless you have a convincing reason that's not related to the famous person or the use of his or her name)
  • Choose a confusing name that includes numerals or punctuation (although some courts have permitted people to spell out the numbers, for example, "Seven" instead of "7")
  • Choose a name that would intimidate, offend, be considered obscene, or is a racial slur

What Are the Most Common Reasons People Change Their Names?

Marriage and divorce are easily the most common reasons people change their names. Generally, if you're changing your name after marriage, a marriage certificate is the only thing that you need. A divorce decree is all you need to change your name back after divorce.

Is Filing My Name Change in Court Required?

Not in most states, but it's helpful. Most states allow you to legally change your name simply through usage. You can choose a name and just start using it in social settings and in your business. This can be a completely legal name change.

The problems arise when it comes to government and financial agencies. Because identity theft, credit card fraud, and even the fear of terrorist spies are rampant, many financial and government agencies may require legal court documents to prove your identity; there are certain forms of identification, such as a Social Security card, birth certificate, and passports, which will absolutely require legal name change documents.

Again, since every state varies on their name change rules, be sure to check with your local court clerk to find out your state's requirements.

Who Should You Notify of Your New Name?

Be sure to change your name on all of your personal and legal documents, such as wills, deeds, titles, trusts, accounts, and powers of attorney. Changing your name on estate planning documents will make it much easier for your heirs in the future. While your heirs can't be disinherited because of a name discrepancy, they may have to go through more steps in order to show your former name and true identity before being awarded their share.

In addition to your friends and family members, here are some of the entities that you should notify once you legally change your name:

  • Employers
  • Schools
  • Post Office (via change of address form)
  • 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

If any of these entities give you a hard time when you tell them about your legal name change, remind them of your right to do so and offer them a copy of the court order. If necessary, talk to a supervisor. Remember that many financial institutions and creditors will be reluctant for fear of identity theft and fraud. Be patient, and continue enforcing the use of your new name. Eventually, it'll catch on permanently.

Talk to a Lawyer About How to Legally Change Your Name

Legally changing your name, whether for marriage, divorce, or another reason, can be a big life event. The laws in every state are different and you'll want to make sure you're doing it by the book, including filing your legal name change petition with the appropriate government entity. Let an experienced family law attorney walk you through the process.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified family law attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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