What's in a name? Well, if the number of people who request a name change in California are any indication, there's a lot to a name. Fortunately, name changes are not complicated, even though you'll probably need to go to court to do it. Changing your name used to be fairly simple. First, you would pick a new name, start using it and ask agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and Social Security Administration (SSA) to change your records. After a few years, your new name would become your official legal name. Today, because of identity theft and fears of fraud and terrorism, agencies require that you have a court order changing your name before allowing any changes to your legal record.
Taking your spouse's name. The only exception to using the court method is changing your name after getting married—as long as one spouse is taking the other spouse's name. You can take your marriage license to the DMV and fill out a simple form in this situation. 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 and married couples are the same, the DMV won't change one partner's name to match the other's after domestic partnership registration without a court order. However, if you register your domestic partnership on or after January 1, 2008, the California Name Equality Act of 2007 permits domestic partners to request a name change on the Certificate of Domestic Partnership form, which you'll submit at the time you register your partnership. If you request the name change on the certificate, you may present that certificate as proof of your new name. (Cal. Fam. Code § 298.6.)
You can change your name or the name of your child by going to court. You can switch to just about any name you want, with a few exceptions:
You can also use the court method to restore your former name after a divorce. But it's a lot easier to get your former name restored as part of the divorce. Go to court only if you didn't change your name in your final divorce judgment.
You'll need to file some simple forms in court, and then you must pay to 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. Don't forget to change your banking, credit card, and work records as well.
In some limited cases, a judge may deny your request for a name change. For example, if the judge believes you are attempting to change your name to commit fraud or to hide from the law, police, or for some other illegal reason, the court will deny your petition. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1277.)
You must provide the court the following for it to process your name change request:
If you're changing your child's name and you aren't the only legal parent, you'll need the other parent's permission to make the change. If you don't have permission, you'll need to deliver court papers to the other parent and then argue in front of the judge why the name change is in the minor's best interest.
If you took your spouse's name during your marriage, and would like to return to your former name after your divorce, most states allow you to do so as part of your divorce. In most divorce petitions and/or responses, there is a provision allowing you to request this. Your judge can then issue a name change order as part of your divorce judgement.
For more information on this, see our article, Changing Your Name After Divorce.
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.