What's in a name? Lots, if the number of people who change their names in California every year is any indication. Fortunately, name changes are not complicated, even though we strongly recommend that in most cases you use court proceedings (the "court method"), rather than the old "usage" method, to change your name. (It used to be fairly simple to just pick a new name, start using it, and ask agencies like the DMV and Social Security to change your records. After a few years, your new name would become your official legal name.) Today, because of identity theft and fears about terrorism, most agencies will require that you have a court order changing your name before they will change your records.
The Marriage Exception
Taking spouse's name. The only exception to using the court method is if you are changing your name after getting married -- as long as one spouse is taking the other spouse's name. In this situation, you can just take your marriage license to the DMV and fill out a simple form. You can do the same with the Social Security Administration. But in all other situations, you'll want to use the court method, including if you and your spouse both want to change your names to a completely new name.
Domestic partners. For a short time, the DMV treated registered domestic partners like married couples for purposes of name changes after marriage -- but no more. Even though it's inconsistent with California law stating that domestic partners should be treated like married couples, the DMV won't change one partner's name to match the other's after registration. You'll need to use the court method -- or get a lawyer and fight the unfair policy.
Limits on New Names
You can change your own name or the name of your child through the court method. You can switch to just about any name you want, with a few exceptions:
- You can't change your name to the same name as a famous person if you're doing it for fraudulent purposes or to benefit financially, or if it will cast the famous person in a negative light.
- You usually can't use fictitious names that are protected by copyright (like Harry Potter or R2D2).
- You can't use racial slurs or fighting words.
You can also use the court method to restore your former name after a divorce -- but you'll only need to do this if you didn't get your former name restored as part of the divorce (which is a lot easier).
Court Method Procedures
To change your name, you'll need to file some simple forms in court, then publish your name change request in a local newspaper for four weeks. After that, you may or may not have to appear in court -- some judges require you to show up in person, while others will sign the order changing your name based solely on the papers you submit.
After your name change, you can take the court order to all the different agencies and institutions that have records about you, and ask them to change your name in their official records.
Changing a Minor's Name
Note that if you're changing a minor's name and you aren't the only legal parent, you'll need the other parent's permission to make the change, or else you'll need to deliver court papers to that person and then argue in front of the judge for why the name change is in the minor's interest.
All the details about name-change procedures, including the forms and instructions you will need to do a name change yourself, are in Nolo's book, How to Change Your Name in California, by Lisa Sedano and Emily Doskow.