How To Legally Change Your Name

How To Legally Change Your NameWhile it is true that you will probably be venturing onto someone else’s turf, this is still your legal name and you will suffer the losses if it is done incorrectly. Resolve from the beginning that you are taking personal responsibility for legally changing your name.

Your “legal name” is your official identity, the name by which you are formally known. Your first legal name is given on your birth certificate. At some point between birth and “going the way of all flesh,” you might decide to legally change your name. Marriage is, of course, a generally accepted reason for legally changing one’s surname and, depending on the State in which you are married, that new surname can be the spouse’s surname, the couple’s hyphenated surnames, some combination of parts of the couple’s surnames, or a completely newly created surname. Divorce is yet another reason for a legal name change and here, depending on the State, the court may grant a return to one’s maiden name as part of the divorce decree. However, a person may choose to legally change first and/or last names for a host of other legitimate reasons, including but not limited to: business purposes; divorce; adoption; gender change, or because he/she just plain doesn’t like his/her existing legal name.

Legal name changes are governed by State law (except for federal naturalization, in which a legal name change is allowed through federal methods). There are basically two ways to legally change a name: by usage; or by court order. Changing a legal name by usage is grounded in common law and involves simply using the new name without paying any fees or filing any papers. The majority of States will recognize a name change by simple usage, though certain individuals such as incarcerated prisoners, probationers, parolees and/or convicted sex offenders, may not be allowed to use this informal method. Even when an individual is otherwise allowed to easily and freely change his/her name through usage, problems arise when the newly-named individual must deal with institutions such as the DMV, banks, the Social Security Administration, the IRS, etc. At those points, the newly-named individual must register his/her new name with these organizations and a court order is often required for that registration. Consequently, the surest and most effective way to legally change a name is through the second method – court order.

Legally changing a name through court order requires a petition or application and payment of fees to the appropriate State court, depending on the State in which the person resides. Normally, people 18 years of age or older may petition on their own behalf while people under the age of 18 must have someone else petition for them. The court will want to know the reasons for the person’s requested name change. Telling one’s life story isn’t necessary but the court asks for the reasons because certain reasons are unacceptable and will result in denial of the name change. Depending on the State, the court will not allow a name change: for an illegal purpose, such as fraud; for evasion of a debt, lien or judgment; for evasion of criminal prosecution and/or penalties; to mislead, for example, by using a famous person’s name; to defame; to racially slur; to threaten; to incite violence; to use an obscenity; for an immoral purpose; and sometimes even for a frivolous purpose. If the proposed new name and reason(s) seem acceptable, the court might require the individual to publish legal notices of the proposed name change several times in one or more newspapers. The publication gives other people a “heads up” on the change and an opportunity to oppose it if they believe the change sought for one of those “unacceptable reasons,” such as fraud, debt evasion and the like. Publication might not be required under certain circumstances, for example, if the person is in the Witness Protection Program, or is changing his/her name due to domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault. After any required publication, and if there is no objection to the name change, the court reviews the petition and proof of publication – sometimes with a hearing – then issues a court order officially changing the petitioner’s name. After the court ordered name change, the newly named person must obtain certified copies of the order and file those with the appropriate institutions/agencies, such as the DMV, banks, Social Security Administration and the IRS. Changing one’s name without a lawyer is possible and the court’s clerks can assist people in obtaining, completing and submitting the correct forms; however, the process is more smoothly accomplished with a lawyer who is licensed in your State and can shepherd the petition through the court-required processes.


DON’T be intimidated by the process or the people.

DON’T change your name through mere usage if you intend to deal with institutions such as the DMV, banks, the Social Security Administration, the IRS, etc.

DON’T attempt to change your name through mere usage if you are an incarcerated prisoner, a probationer, a parolee and/or convicted sex offender.

Generally, DON’T attempt to change your name:
a. For an illegal purpose;
b. For evasion of a debt, lien or judgment;
c. For evasion of criminal prosecution or penalty;
d. To mislead;
e. To defame;
f. To racially slur;
g. To threaten;
h. To incite violence;
i. To use an obscenity;
j. For an immoral purpose;
k. For a frivolous purpose.

DO ask the court’s clerks to assist you in obtaining, completing and submitting the correct forms.

Better yet, DO hire an attorney in your State to shepherd your petition/application for name change through the court-required processes.

By Kathy Catanzarite

[Note from This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information cannot be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither, or any of its affiliates, shall have any liability stemming from this article.]