Changing your name is a big deal. Your identity and history are tied to your name, so the switch can be a monumental decision. Unfortunately, governments know this, too — so the process of legally changing your name often involves red tape, loads of paperwork, and high fees.
Name change laws vary from one U.S. state to the next, so navigating that maze of rules, forms, and hearings can be overwhelming. While a legal name change can be a bureaucratic nightmare, it's necessary for people who wish to make their new names official.
Steven A. Friday, a transgender medical-legal partnership attorney at the Los Angeles law firm Bet Tzedek, has worked directly on dozens of name change petitions. "The State of California does recognize a common law right for most people to change their name. The petition process with the Court is considered the state's record of that change," he says via email. "On the other hand, government entities and other organizations create their own requirements for correcting a name on their respective records. ... Similar requirements apply for passports and Social Security accounts. Thus, in practice, the common law change is not sufficient for most people's needs, such as corrected identity documents."
There are a variety of reasons why you may want to legally change your name (or your children's names), such as:
You don't like your current name.
You want your name to conform with your gender identity.
You got married or want to take your partner's name.
You got divorced.
You face discrimination because of your name.
Your name is difficult to pronounce.
You want to honor your heritage or ancestors.
You want to make your nickname or pseudonym official.
Some people decide to change their names for unconventional reasons, too, like they want the same name as their favorite superhero. Generally, you're allowed to choose an unusual name for an atypical reason. But some names are off limits in certain states, like names that are vulgar or offensive, ones that may cause harm or public confusion, and ones that have excessive or numerical characters.
The Legal Name Change Process
Because individual states handle name changes, it is impossible to provide a one-size-fits-all guide to the process. Though you'd need to refer to the instructions supplied by your local court or consult with an attorney to learn the rules specific to your situation, there are guidelines that are common across the U.S.
Legal name changes can be divided into two basic categories: those that require you to file a petition with a local court and those that don't. We'll start with the latter, since those can demand less up-front legwork. These kinds of name changes occur within other legal proceedings, such as marriage, divorce, and naturalization.
When a Petition Is Not Required
Marriage: Make sure to get certified copies of the marriage license (aka the marriage certificate) to use as proof of your name change. (FYI, you're issued a marriage license by the county clerk before you get married and your officiant sends your signed marriage license or marriage certificate back to the county clerk after the wedding ceremony.) This process isn't seamless for everyone, though. For example, you may not be able to change your first name nor change both spouses' last names to a hyphenated or brand-new name this way. People in common law marriages may need to file a request with the court to change their names.
Divorce: You may be able to change your name to a former name, such as your birth name, during the divorce process. Request the name change in your divorce forms where prompted, and once your divorce is final, use your divorce decree as proof of your legal name change. You may still be able to change your name after your divorce is final, but you will likely need to take additional steps, like gathering divorce case information, filling out a request form, and paying a fee.
Naturalization: A person can request a legal name change during their naturalization, or the process by which a person born outside of the U.S. becomes a U.S. citizen. Someone applying for naturalization may request a legal name change on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Form N-400. While people who change their names this way are absolved of going through any separate court procedures, they are required to have their swearing-in ceremony in a courtroom presided by a judge, which can present other complications.
When a Petition Is Required
In some name change cases, wading through the court system is necessary. If you want to change your first name on a whim, to align with your gender identity, or for other purposes unrelated to separate legal processes, then you'll likely have to petition the court. You can find a lawyer to help you with your case; sign up for a paid service to help with information and document gathering; or take the DIY route. Either way, petitioning to change your name may require you to take the following steps:
Decide what your new name will be.
Gather the necessary documents, such as proof of your identity and current name.
Fill out and file required forms, like the petition for the name change and an order to show cause for the name change. Get your forms notarized if required.
Publish notices of your name change request in a local newspaper for a specified period.
Attend a court hearing if required. Hearings are often set several weeks after the court filing to allow for objections.
The judge reviews your case and approves or denies your request. If it is approved, get your decree and at least one certified copy of it to use in order to update your records. A judge may deny your petition for the following reasons:
You're trying to evade law enforcement, avoid debt, or commit fraud.
You're required to register as a sex offender.
Your criminal history assessment can't be completed or shows outstanding issues.
The name change of a minor is not in the child's best interest.
Since name change petitions are different depending on the applicant and state where they are filed, there are many exceptions and caveats to these rules. Here are a few:
Fees: Court fees and the cost of the certified copies can rack up to hundreds of dollars, discouraging low-income people from applying. To provide fair access to the courts, Friday says, a court may grant fee waivers based on household income or inability to pay court costs. Some organizations also help people pay for gender transition-related expenses, including name changes.
Hearings: Hearings are not always required. In California, for instance, people who change their name to match their gender identity only have to attend a hearing if someone files a written objection to the name change.
Public Notices: Many states do not require publication of the name change announcement at all. Others require public notice with broad or narrow options to waive the requirement.
This entire process can take months, and it will likely cause some headaches along the way. On top of how time consuming and costly it can be, legally changing your name can be an emotional rollercoaster.
"Having to have a judge 'grant' your request to change your name can feel uncomfortable and, for trans and nonbinary folks particularly, disaffirming. Though receiving the final decree can be quite affirming!" says Friday. Plus, policy and personal opinions can affect the experience that a person has when taking their new name. "While over the past few years, California's laws have progressively changed to remove judicial discretion and increase privacy, new laws and procedures sometimes take time to reach all of the judges and court personnel."
After Your Name Change
You're breathing a sigh of relief now that you've done the arduous work of legally changing your name — but you aren't off the hook yet! Whether or not you had to petition the courts for your name change, you still have to trudge through the work of updating your name with a slew of agencies and companies. It's often beneficial to get a new Social Security card, driver's license, and passport first, since these documents can be used for verification of your new name when contacting other institutions. Here are some of the other organizations that you'll need to notify of your new moniker once it's official:
state tax agency
voter registration (usually done with driver's license)
"For many locales, there are resources including self-help guides, clinics, or legal services [and] organizations that can give guidance or direct assistance with completing name changes," says Friday. "In some places, the courts will provide some basic information. While the process can be intimidating, it may be worth it to search for some sort of assistance rather than avoiding it all together."