How to Change Your Name

Learn about the steps necessary to legally change your name.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School

How Do I Change My Name?

You can change your name by following your state's name change guidelines. While each state's policy varies, the first step is to file a formal petition for a name change with your local court. You can ask the court if it supplies the forms. Otherwise, you may need to check online or consult with an attorney. Complete the forms and hand them to the court clerk.

Next, the court may require you to obtain official fingerprints and a background check through local law enforcement or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Once you've completed your fingerprinting and background check, some states require you to set up and pay for a formal advertisement in the local newspaper or other publication. The purpose of advertising your name change is to inform your creditors and any other interested party of your intent to change your name. In most cases, the publication is a formality that doesn't interfere with the name change process.

Lastly, you'll need to attend a formal hearing in front of a judge or magistrate. During the hearing, the judge will ask you your reasons for changing your name and will ask you, under oath, to verify that you're not seeking a name change to commit fraud or for any other unlawful reason. If the judge is satisfied with your testimony, the court will issue the name change.

How Do I Implement My Name Change?

Whether you've changed your name on your own, by marriage, or with a court order, the most critical part of accomplishing a name change is letting others know. If you start a new job, apply for a new credit card, or begin school, use only your new name. Introduce yourself to new friends and acquaintances with your new name.

You'll also need to contact individuals and companies that have your previous name and contact information, including the following:

State and Federal Government Agencies. One of the first steps for any name change is for you to visit your state and other government agencies to have your name changed on their records. You may need to provide proof of your court order, marriage certificate, or judgment of divorce. In most cases, the best first steps you can take are to obtain a new driver's license from the Department of Motor Vehicles and a Social Security card. Once you have a photo I.D. and a Social Security card, it's usually easier to change your name with other institutions.

Your Family and Friends. We all know that family gossip travels fast, so one of the best ways to implement your name change is to tell your family and friends. Once your closest friends and family accept your new name, everyone else will usually follow suit.

Your Employer. You may want to change your email address and your business cards, and other identifying information at work. If so, be sure to inform your supervisor or boss and your employer's human resources and payroll departments.

Some of the important people or institutions you should notify may include the following:

  • banking and other financial institutions
  • friends and family
  • employers
  • schools
  • doctors
  • post office
  • Department of Motor Vehicles
  • Social Security Administration
  • insurance agencies
  • voter registration (usually with your driver's license)
  • utility companies
  • professional licensing agencies (doctors, lawyers, etc.)
  • public assistance agencies, and
  • credit card or other lending institutions.

Whether you've changed your name on your own, by marriage, or with a court order, the most critical part of accomplishing a name change is letting others know.

If you've created an estate plan (a will or trust) with an attorney, be sure to contact the office to inform the attorney of your new name. It's best to replace your existing documents with new ones that reflect your name change, so there is no confusion later. You should also heed this advice for any other necessary legal documents, like legal contracts, powers of attorney, or living wills.

Can I Change My Name If My Marriage Is Common Law?

Common law marriage is a concept that only a handful of states still recognize. There's no formal ceremony in this type of relationship, so it's common for couples to look at other ways to legitimize the relationship. One of the easiest ways to feel more like a married couple is for the spouses to use the same last name. Unlike a legal marriage, where couples can change last names with ease, the process is a bit more challenging for common law spouses.

Although anyone can request a name change, you must follow your state's rules if you'd like state or government agencies to recognize it. For example, you can modify your last name on social media without a court order, but if you want your driver's license or Social Security card to reflect your new name, you will likely need to file a motion (request) with the court and demonstrate that you've taken the necessary steps to meet the legal requirements.

Changing your legal name isn't a complicated process, but it can be costly depending on where you live. Check with an experienced attorney for more information on your state's requirements.

Do I Have to Go to Court to Change My Name After Marriage or Divorce?

If your judgment of divorce or marriage certificate changes your name, you won't need to take any additional steps. You will need to provide proof of the name change, but in most cases, if you can show a copy of your marriage certificate or judgment of divorce, that will be enough.

However, if both spouses wish to change their name to a hyphen or a combination of both spouses' last names, your state may require you to go through the formal name change process.

If your divorce judgment doesn't contain a provision that changes your name back to your maiden name or another name, you may need to go back to court and ask the judge to modify the court order. If you aren't successful, you may need to go through your state's legal name change process before your name change occurs.

What Should I Do If I Have a Hard Time Getting My New Name Accepted?

Start by providing proof of your name change. If you obtain a Social Security card first, most agencies won't question the update. If the company or person still doesn't update your file, you can provide proof of your marriage certificate or judgment of divorce.

You have the legal right to change your name, so if you continue having trouble getting the agency to cooperate, ask to speak with a supervisor or call the central office.

As a last resort, you can obtain a court order that establishes your new name. Although it's not ideal and may cost you some money, it would be well worth it. No organization can compete with a current court order.

I Don't Like My Birth Name, and I Want to Change It. Can I Choose Any Name I Want?

You can generally change your name to anything you want, but you must also follow your state's guidelines and restrictions. For example, you may not do any of the following:

  • change your name to commit a crime or defraud a person
  • choose a confusing new name that uses symbols or numbers (some courts allow you to change your name to a number if you spell it out (for example, sixteen, not "16")
  • change your name to escape your debt or liabilities
  • choose a name with the intent to mislead, which usually means you can't change your name to match someone famous (for example, you can't change your name to Angelina Jolie Pitt)
  • choose a name that contains a racial slur, or
  • select a name that some would consider being offensive or intimidating,

You need to be sure to follow your state's rules on legally changing your name. Every state differs in its requirements, so if you're not sure what steps to take first, you may want to contact an experienced attorney in your area before you proceed.

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