Name Change Basics

Name Change Basics 101

How do I change my name if I have a common law marriage?

A name change, as well as marriage, is regulated by the states. In a traditional marriage, a couple files for a marriage license and performs a marriage ceremony to solidify the marriage. On the marriage license application, each person indicates what his or her new name will be upon completion of the marriage ceremony. For example, what the couple’s last name will be, will it be hyphenated, or will each person keep their respective names.

A common law marriage does not involve a marriage license or ceremony. Not all states recognize common law marriages as valid. In states that do, common law marriage laws typically require that the couple cohabitate for a certain period of time. In addition, the couple must hold themselves out to the public as a married couple such as referring to one and other as husband and wife and using the same last name.

Simply using the same last name as a spouse, however, does not constitute a legal name change. To accomplish this, a petition must be filed with the court requesting a name change.

What’s the legal process to changing my name?

Each state has it’s own guidelines to formally change one’s name. The process is usually quick and easy. Simply fill out the state’s name change form and submit it to the court’s clerk with any other state required documentation. Many states offer an online filing process. In most cases, the form will be reviewed and signed by a judge. A court order will then be issued, granting the request.

In many cases, a request for a name change does not require a separate filing but can be included as part of another court filing such as a motion to adopt, a petition to dissolve a marriage, or as stated above, on a marriage license application.

After the name change…

Once the court order granting a name change is received, it is important to make the change official. A good next step is to take the court order to the Department of Motor Vehicles to update driver’s license information. Having a photo ID reflecting the name change, along with a court order, will make other formal updates easier. Next, contact the Social Security Department and Department of Vital Records to update information and request a new social security card and birth certificate.

It is also important to contact and update information with employers, the post office and other postal services, schools, banking and lending institutions, medical and dental offices, insurance providers, the voter registrar, the registry of deeds, leasing companies, utilities providers and any other pertinent businesses. Having an updated photo ID, social security card and birth certificate ahead of time will streamline the updating process. Another critical step to take in implementing a new name is to inform friends and family of the change. The change may take some getting use to but stay consistent and patient to give everyone a chance to adapt.

What should I do if people continue to use my former name?

Once a name change request is granted, it is now legally binding. As prior mentioned, take the time to update photo identification, bank information and credit cards, medical and dental information, postal and mailing information, school information, and employer information. These institutions are required to keep updated information and therefore legally bound to respect a name change.

If people in a casual or social setting refuse to acknowledge a name change, contact an attorney. A person has the right to be addressed by their legal name; especially if the use of their former name is offensive, meant to harass or jeopardizes that person’s safety.

Can I change my entire name or just my last name?

A typical name change involves only a surname change, like in the instance of marriage or adoption. However, there are those cases when a person requires an entire name change; first, middle, and last. Some examples are to add a layer of protection from an abuser of a domestic violence victim. Or, a person simply does not like their birth name.

A person seeking to change their name may change it to just about any name they wish so long as the new name is not profane or other wise offensive. A person may not, however, change their name if the intent is to escape criminal or civil liability. 

I’m getting a divorce and want to go back to using my maiden name.

Unfortunately, many marriages end in divorce. It is not uncommon for the spouse who took their spouse’s last name to want to change it back upon getting a divorce. When a couple decides to get a divorce, a name change request can be included in the petition to dissolve the marriage. The final divorce decree will include language granting the request.

Sometimes, a divorcee will elect to keep their former spouse’s name. The most common reason is at the time of the divorce; the couple still had minor children to co-raise. Having the same last name as the children is unlikely to cause confusion when dealing with pediatricians, dentists, teachers, and so on. Having the same last can also help with the emotional burden and stigma children can face when parents decide to get a divorce. If a name change was not included in the divorce decree, as prior stated, a name change request is regulated by the states but in general requires filing a petition with the court, a judge’s signature granting the request and the issuance of a court order.

Once a spouse goes back to using their maiden name, it is necessary to update all pertinent documents such as driver’s license, banking information and credit cards, insurance information, etc. It is not necessary to change birth certificates or the birth certificates of children born to the couple during the marriage, as these documents are likely to already contain surname information. However, a new, updated social security card will need to be issued.

I want my adopted child to have my last name.

In the case of adoption, a name change request can be included in the adoption court filings. However, adoption is more than a name change; it legally changes that person’s parental information on record. Once the adoption is granted and the court order is issued, contact the Department of Vital Records to change the person’s name on their birth certificate and also the parental information. A new birth certificate will need to be issued, reflecting all necessary changes.

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