Written by Tony Chiaramonte on 10/12/2020

How to Change Your Name

A name is a complex statement about who a person is and what their values are like — and these things change over time. As a result, many people at some point find themselves wanting a new name. In fact, tens of thousands of people change their names every year. They do so for various reasons, most of which are outlined further below.

A legal name change is a binding decision that takes more than filing legal paperwork and paying a filing fee; there are other requirements and future implications. Also, alternatives exist in some cases that might be better than a name change.

family law attorney near you will be familiar with the procedural requirements and can eliminate the risk of costly delays. Moreover, a family law attorney can give clients solid advice and a long-term perspective that would be impossible to find in a DIY guidebook. 

If you’re considering changing your name and wondering how, where, when — and even why — then read on.

Why Do People Change Their Names?

In most states, petitioners do not need a compelling reason to change their legal names. The requested change simply must be in their best interests and the best interests of the general public. Typically, courts only disallow requests if the name change petition is made in an attempt to hide a criminal past or avoid creditors.

Otherwise, there is normally no "bad" reason to change one's name. In fact, many petitioners do not give any reason beyond the generic “best interests.” Nevertheless, people can be guided by any number of specific motivations: 

Marriage or divorce 

Marital events trigger the most name changes in the United States, so many states offer streamlined procedures. Divorce decrees often include name change provisions, especially if a divorcing spouse wants to return to a maiden name or other previous name. The post-ceremony marriage certificate (different from the pre-ceremony marriage license) usually satisfies governmental documentation requirements. 

Nontraditional marital name changes are a bit more complex, such as with a hyphenation, creation of a new name by combining surnames, same-sex wedding, or when a husband wants to take his wife’s last name. Depending on state and municipality regulations, these “exceptional” types of alterations often require separate legal proceedings.

Nonparent or stepparent adoption 

Nonparent adoption petitions usually include name change clauses, and usually there is no need for a separate court order. However, name changes prompted by remarriage are a special case. Blended families do not always mesh together like The Brady Bunch

If the children have different surnames from the adults, there could always be some emotional division as a result. That’s why many families opt for stepparent adoption, in which case the stepfather or stepmother replaces the child's natural father or mother, at least in the eyes of the law.

But children can have, at most, two legal parents, so stepparent adoptions typically involve a termination of parental rights, making these matters more emotionally complex. But termination means a complete forfeiting of rights — including visitation rights — and many fathers and mothers understandably do not want to completely lose touch with their children.

So a name change petition often is used as an alternative to stepparent adoption. Biological parents who would not agree to a termination of their rights are more likely to agree to a name change. For the blended family, the effect is not as dramatic as adoption from an emotional standpoint, but it achieves the goal of all the family members sharing the same last name.

Inheritance status

Name changes motivated by inheritance concerns were once common, especially in the United Kingdom, but are rather rare today. One such rarity happened in 2003 when Athina Roussel changed her name to Athina Onassis so she could inherit that family's sizable fortune.

Ethnic heritage or identity 

Many people from geographically diverse backgrounds have Anglicized names but desire more ethnically identifiable names that better represent their heritage. 

Many immigrants have an opposite but equally valid desire; they want less ethnically weighted names to ease their transition into a new country, especially if their given names are difficult to pronounce in their new country’s dominant language. 

Religious experience 

Many name changes have been motivated by religion. Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and Lewis Alcindor Jr. to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, both after converting to Islam. 

Others move in the opposite direction, to distance themselves from a deity or faith. For example, they might change names like Nathaniel, Ellen, or Maribel (as "el" is a Hebrew name for "god").

Gender identity transition

When people transition from male to female or vice versa, they often choose new names more closely associated with their new gender: Michael becomes Michelle, Francine becomes Franklin, etc. For trans people, legal name changes can represent the government's seal of approval for their transition, as well as make a statement claiming their new identity.

Social or political ideology 

People also change their names to make ideological statements. For instance, Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X to represent his uncertain ethnic background. And former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (whose name means "power of the Trinity" in Amharic) was born Rastafari Makonnen. 

Family dissociation 

Being named after a family member might not always feel like an honor. When schisms happen within a family, a person might want a different name, especially if they feel constricted under generational naming conventions like Joe Brown III. The same applies if a family name is especially antiquated or carries negative connotations — like being named after Grandpa Adolf. 

Personal expression and informal names

Non-famous people sometimes change their names for less specific and more personal reasons. In the past, a traditional child’s name often signified who or what the parents wanted their child to become. Consequently, many people today feel their names are generic and want something more unique. 

On a related note, some people who go by informal or “stage” names are now seeking legal name changes, which make it easier to obtain official documentation like passports or driver’s licenses in their chosen names.

Forty-six states currently allow informal name changes in which usage determines the person's name, such as in situations where parents call a child by their middle name.

But many private organizations, such as schools, banks, and most governmental agencies require a court order to accept a name change. So, in most cases, it's better to have official documentation. After all, sooner or later, that child will grow up and want a passport, drivers' license, or other official document.

How Can You Change Your Name in Any State?

Exact rules vary, but most states require the filing of a name change petition and subsequent court hearing. Sometimes, especially in the case of marriage or divorce, a streamlined procedure is available, as mentioned above. If a petitioner is under 18, they’re required to serve a formal notice to their legal parents.

Standalone name change petitions must include basic information about the petitioner, such as their current name and address. In special cases, like situations that involve stalking or other domestic violence, courts often mask this personal information. 

In all cases, the petition must also include the proposed new name, as well as the reason for the requested change. A generic reason, such as “the best interests of the petitioner and society,” normally suffices. Petitioners must file name change requests in their county of residence. 

In many jurisdictions, petitioners also must undergo a state and federal background check — complete with fingerprints — to screen for certain types of crimes. The results of the background check can affect the outcome of the petition. Consult an attorney about restrictions, regulations, and procedures in your area.

Once a petition is completed and filed, a brief court hearing is required to validate the information and approve the name change.

What Attorneys in My State Handle Name Changes?

Since most name change proceedings are pretty straightforward, especially if the petitioner is an adult, most family law attorneys handle them. Depending on the level of arrangement that you agree to, they can help with just one element or walk you through the entire process. 

In addition to advising you on your best course of legal action, an attorney can review the draft of your petition or write the draft for you; make sure you’ve collected all the required documentation; help you obtain the necessary background check; accompany you to court for the hearing; and/or navigate the notification process afterward

Find a family law attorney in your area to decide what kind of help you need with your name change process.

What Happens at a Name Change Hearing?

Generally, name change hearings are quick. The judge reviews the petition and accompanying paperwork to ensure that “all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed.” Special scrutiny usually is given to notice provisions in a minor’s name change case.

During the hearing, an attorney asks a few yes/no questions for the petitioner to answer. Many lawyers give their clients scripts to make this part easier. Once the court is satisfied with the answers and the paperwork, the name change is granted.

What Are the Name Change Notification Requirements?

The court order authorizes a petitioner’s name change, but it doesn’t automatically change their name with any other offices or entities. So after changing their name, petitioners are advised to notify governmental agencies, schools, and financial institutions whose records will need to be updated. These should include:

  • Tax entities: Social Security Administration, the IRS, and your state tax authority

  • Agencies that issue identification: the Department of Motor Vehicles, the passport office, and the voter registration bureau

  • The U.S. Postal Service

  • Banks and other financial institutions, including credit card companies/issuers, and the administrator of your retirement plan

  • Health care providers: doctors, hospitals, clinics, and other facilities

  • Insurance companies with which you hold policies

  • Family, friends, and other associates you wish to notify

  • Your employer plus your HR rep, co-workers, and industry colleagues you wish to notify

  • Clubs or groups where you hold memberships

  • Stores or service providers (brick and mortar or online) where you hold accounts

It is usually a good idea after the hearing to request several certified copies of the approved name change order. Before they change official records, most official agencies want to see original documents or certified copies to verify the new information and its legitimacy.

Parental notice

In situations of parental notice, which is mandated for petitioners under 18, most jurisdictions require “personal service” — meaning the process by which the legal parents are notified in person of the child’s name change — although service by posting or publication might be available. Personal service methods vary in different jurisdictions. 

Generally, the local sheriff or constable serves these papers for a very small fee. However, these professionals are busy and not always extremely diligent in such situations. A private process server is usually faster, though more expensive. 

If the judge approves it, alternative service by posting on the courthouse door or publication in a local newspaper can be acceptable. A few judges even allow notification via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms.

The stepparent filing the child’s petition often does not know the other parent or guardian’s address. That’s especially true if the child’s parents divorced several years earlier and went their separate ways. In these situations, the filing party generally must submit an affidavit stating that the parent’s whereabouts are unknown. 

Technically, the nonfiling parent can object to the petition. But unless the child’s name change meets the criteria of the extreme circumstances mentioned above — avoiding creditors or hiding a criminal history — these challenges usually fail.

What Are Some Post-Hearing Name Change Issues?

Obtaining a legal name change in court is one thing. Enforcing a name change is quite another prospect, especially when dealing with financial institutions and government bureaucracy. It’s recommended that when trying to formalize your name change with official entities, you always carry with you or have digital access to three types of documents:

  • Legal: a certified marriage certificate, final decree of divorce, or the name change judgment from the court is needed

  • Identification: your state-issued driver’s license or ID card, naturalization certificate, or passport with your birth name

  • Date of birth: a birth certificate, adoption record, or hospital record

Even after some officials see court orders, many still flatly refuse to comply and accept the name change. Frequently, a letter from an attorney is what it takes to get things moving.

Schools and universities: Diploma reissue

For currently enrolled students, name changes are rather straightforward, at least in most cases. But for graduates, the process can be much more intricate.

All colleges and universities require official documentation of a name change, but specific requirements vary across different institutions. In some cases, a driver’s license bearing the new name might be sufficient. But most schools want additional documentation as well, such as a court order or an amended birth certificate.

Check institutional rules and gather the required documentation. Failure to present the proper paperwork could significantly delay the change. Many schools already take three or four months to reissue a diploma.

NOTE: Before you start down the path to changing your name, think about whether a name change on your diploma or professional license is a good idea. Many people spend years building a professional reputation, and an official name change could undo all that work, requiring you to restart almost from scratch.

Banks and financial institutions: Accountholder name change

In financial situations, legalizing and notification of a name change is not really optional. In the post-9/11 world, even basic financial transactions usually require photo identification. If the account name and ID name do not match, banks are legally required to refuse the transaction. Check your bank’s rules regarding name change procedures. 

Some bank clerks may try to make a distinction between "traditional" and "nontraditional" name changes, quickly making the necessary changes for traditional name changes but dragging their feet in nontraditional situations. This is an illegal practice, but it’s also sometimes difficult to resolve without getting managers or even lawyers involved.

If you encounter this kind of opposition, it's usually best to not make a scene at the time. Emotionally charged confrontations often end badly, and at any rate, they will not change the bank clerk's course of action. Instead, have your attorney handle further interactions with the organization until the new name is accepted for use.

Government agencies: Social Security card, passport, birth certificate 

Because of post-9/11 changes in many governmental regulations, name change requests for various federal- or state-issued documents require exacting documentation and usually an in-person visit to the agency. 

  • Social Security card

For example, name change requests for Social Security cards cannot be made or processed online. These petitioners have the option to mail in their requests — but it's usually best to go in person, if possible.

In essence, you are requesting a new Social Security card, so the procedure may vary from the one you went through when getting your original card. The Social Security number remains the same, meaning there are fewer hoops to jump through.

To process a name change, the Social Security Administration requires that you present: 

    • a United States-issued birth certificate or passport 

    • a U.S.-issued driver’s license or state identification card 

    • your court-certified name change order 

Some ID card substitutes, such as a school, employee, or military ID, are acceptable in some cases. The birth certificate/passport requirement, however, is pretty much absolute, as is the need to see the certified original or copy of your court-approved name change order.

  • Passport

The process is roughly the same for amending a passport, except the official supporting document normally must be a court order or an amended birth certificate. Typically, the request must be presented in person, which usually means making an online appointment.

  • Birth certificate

As for corrected birth certificates, the person whose name is on the certificate — or, if that person is a minor, a parent — can request an amended birth certificate. Typically, the state vital statistics division will amend a birth certificate upon receipt of an official document bearing the new name. Almost any official document will do, such as:

    • Court order

    • Passport

    • School record

    • Census record

    • Military record

  • Driver’s license 

Driver’s license name change procedures also vary by state. But for the most part, they are quite similar to birth certificate amendments. An attorney near you can point you in the right direction.

A Name Change Means Legal and Emotional Changes

Some legal documents are little more than pieces of paper, but name changes are different. These alterations do not just change legal status; they also change an individual's or family's emotional status.

In most cases, this legal process is usually straightforward, but do not let that fool you. Unless the legal paperwork and the filing process meet strict requirements, a judge will likely reject your petition. Even after a successful filing and hearing, the legal and financial requirements can be overwhelming.

A partnership with a good family law attorney helps ensure that your formal name change proceeding will go smoothly. An attorney also can represent you in ancillary name change proceedings, such as a stepparent adoption. 

In any case, you don’t have to go it alone: Legal representation can offer you additional peace of mind during a momentous transition like a legal name change. 

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