Sharing Your Last Name With Your Unmarried Partner

Learn about the process and impact of sharing a last name with your partner.

By , Attorney (Cooley Law School)

Unmarried partners often share bank accounts, a home, and personal property. Typically, each partner in an unmarried relationship keeps their name. It's easy, it allows you to retain your identity, and it creates a legal separation between the individuals.

For some couples however, sharing a last name signifies an unbreakable union. Fortunately, the process to change your name is relatively simple.

Rules Regarding Name Changes

If you'd like to take your unmarried partner's last name, you can do so with a court order, but you'll need to follow your state's guidelines and restrictions. State rules may vary, but these are the most common:

  • you may not change your name in order to commit fraud, commit a crime, or mislead others into thinking you're someone else (for example, changing your name to match someone famous),
  • you may not change your name to escape your debts or other liabilities, and
  • your proposed name cannot contain a racial slur, incite violence, be offensive, or contain symbols or numbers.

Changing Your Last Name Without a Court Order

Some states allow you to change your name by using the new name and gradually changing your official documents to match the name you're using. This "usage method" is legal in many states, but it's not always effective. In most cases, you can't change your government identification without a court order, like a marriage certificate or divorce judgment.

Most government agencies, colleges, employers, and banking institutions require a proper form of government identification before you can receive services or apply for benefits. In our post-September 11th world, many agencies won't accept your word that your new name is legitimate, especially if it doesn't match your current identification.

For most people, it's worth spending the time and money to legally and officially change your name.

Applying For a Court-Ordered Name Change

Each state's name change requirements vary, but most require you to file a formal petition (written request) with the local court. Your request must be complete with your current and proposed new name and include a statement that you're not seeking a name change for any illegal purpose. To prevent anyone from committing fraud or escaping creditors, many courts require you to publish notice of the proposed name change with the local newspaper to inform potential creditors.

In some states, you must pay for and obtain an official set of fingerprints. In most cases, you can contact your local law enforcement agency to schedule a visit and inquire about the cost.

Once you meet your state's requirements, you'll attend a hearing in front of the judge to certify under oath that you're changing your name willingly and without fraudulent intent. After you receive the signed court order, you can present it to local agencies, creditors, banking institutions, and schools to implement the name change and gain a new identification card.

Remember, your name change is permanent. In the event of a break up, married couples can simply request a name change in their divorce judgment, but unmarried couples will need to complete a second court process in order to use their original names again.

Common Law Marriage

Common law marriage is still recognized in several states. There is no formal ceremony required to establish this type of relationship. The requirements will vary by state, but generally, a common law spouse can prove a common law marriage by showing specific conduct, including:

  • that the couple held themselves out to the public as married
  • the partners lived together as a married couple
  • the couple acquired property together and shared their finances
  • the partners told their social networks that they were married, and
  • they have documents showing they referred to each other as spouse.

Sharing the same last name is one of the many ways a couple can hold themselves out to the public as married. If you live in a common law marriage state, and you don't want the state to consider you legally married, it's critical that you take this into consideration before you change your name to match your partner's. You may want to consider entering into a written agreement of mutual intent not to enter a common law marriage. If you have questions about the legal impact of sharing a last name with your partner, you should speak to a local family law attorney.

Property Troubles After a Name Change

It's no surprise that when you and your unmarried partner share a name, you may have property division issues down the road if you break up. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, sharing your last name may indicate your intention to combine income and may imply that you and your partner share personal or real property.

If you would like to protect yourself from future property division issues, you and your partner can create an agreement to keep your property separate. You might also consider asking an attorney to help you draft a cohabitation agreement, which allows unmarried couples to identify separate and joint property and agree how to split financial responsibilities in the event of a break up.

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