Legal Name Change Guide
There are many reasons someone might want to change their name. The most common are marriage, divorce, or adoption, but there are other reasons that require a court order. These might include changing your surname to match a parental figure, religious reasons, gender change, or simply disliking the name you were given at birth.
How to legally change your name varies based on the reason for your name change and the state you live in. Each state has different regulations, requirements, and processes. Other things that can affect how to change your name legally include:
- Do you have a legal name change document? In most cases, you must obtain a legal name change document (such as a marriage certificate, divorce decree, or court order) before you can change your name.
- Does your legal name change document show your desired name? In most cases, your legal name change document (marriage certificate, divorce decree, or court order) must specify your desired name. If it doesn’t you will either need to get your legal name change document amended or you will need to obtain a court order.
- Is your desired name change permitted where you live? The name you are changing to must be permitted based on where you live based on the type of legal name change document you hold.
This article will give you a complete overview of how to change your name, including considerations for choosing and changing your name, the name change process, going to court (if necessary), and updating your documents and accounts.
Can You Choose Any Name You Want?
In most cases, you can legally change your name to anything you want as long as you follow a few important rules. These rules are designed to ensure that you are not changing your name for any nefarious means such as fraud or other criminal activity.
Each state checks name change applications against its own criteria to determine if a name change will be allowed. Ultimately, you will find yourself in front of a judge who will make this determination.
For most states, name change petitions may not request any of the following:
- Name changes for the purpose of committing fraud or other crimes. If a judge feels that you are changing your name to disguise your identity to engage in criminal activity, your application will be denied.
- Name changes for the purpose of escaping liability. Your petition will also be denied if you have an ongoing court case or investigation. This applies to both criminal and financial liabilities, debts, and civil litigation.
- Name change with intent to deceive. This rule is designed to prevent people from changing their name to that of a famous person in an attempt to deceive the public.
- Name changes that include offensive words. This includes racial slurs or any other hate speech. Judges will usually deny names that include swear words as well, but it is often up to the judge.
- Name changes to numbers or symbols. The only person to change their name to a symbol in the US was Prince. Judges never allow symbols as a new name, although they may allow numbers if they are spelled out rather than numerals.
There are a few other things you want to consider when choosing a new name. If you want to avoid frustrations later, make sure your new name is easy to pronounce and spell.
How Long Does it Take to Change Your Name?
The amount of time it takes to change your name legally depends on both your state and your situation. It will be much faster if you have a marriage certificate, divorce decree, or adoption certificate. If you need to get a court order first, the wait times to get on a docket could extend the timeline quite a bit.
All but a few states require publication in a newspaper before a name change can be official, and they typically require it to run for about 4 weeks. Other factors that could lengthen the process include fingerprinting requirements and state or federal background checks.
In most states, a legal name change takes anywhere from 6 to 12 months.
How Much Does it Cost to Change Your Name?
The cost to legally change your name depends on where you live and the type of name change. When changing your name after marriage, divorce, or adoption, costs are minimized to the fee for a new state ID, as well as costs and efforts associated with changing your name with all companies and institutions in which you do business.
If you are changing your name due to a court order, the main cost of changing your name is the petition filing fees and court appearance fees. These fees are often determined by county, although the state may offer guidance as to minimums and maximums. The cost of filing the petition could cost between $50 to more than $500, depending on where you live. The cost could increase if there is a need for more than one court appearance.
You may also have costs associated with meeting requirements such as fees for fingerprinting, publication of a classified ad in the paper, or obtaining evidence to defend a particular name choice or purpose for approval by the judge.
Applying for a Name Change
How to legally change your name depends on your desired new name. Here we will review three main approaches to the most common name change cases. This section will explain how the process works and what documents you need to apply.
Marriage name change
Changing your legal name after marriage is the most common and easiest way to change your name. You will need to apply for a marriage license at your local city or county courthouse. After your marriage occurs, you will receive a marriage certificate which will serve as your legal name change document throughout your name change process.
In order to change your name due to marriage, you will need your marriage certificate and proof of US citizenship such as your birth certificate or US passport.
The first place to update your name after your marriage is with the Social Security Administration (SSA). You do this by submitting Form SS-5, your marriage certificate, and proof of your identity and citizenship to your local SSA office. You can then proceed to change your name on your driver’s license (REAL ID or standard), US passport, and other state and federal documents.
Note, each state is different. Some have specific provisions for anyone other than a woman to take a husband’s last name. In these situations, couples will often have to go through a court-ordered name change process.
Things could get trickier when it is not your first marriage since you will also need to provide proof of your previous name changes (such as a previous marriage certificate or divorce decree) when obtaining your new driver’s license. You will need to link your birth name to your desired new name. Obtaining a REAL ID after a subsequent marriage still requires a birth certificate or passport, as well as every marriage certificate and divorce decree documenting each name change throughout your life.
Not only could this be time-consuming, but it also adds to the cost of legally changing your name. Most people do not keep old marriage certificates or divorce papers, and it can be difficult and expensive to track down and obtain certified copies.
Once you have your new Social Security card, driver’s license, and passport, you can start changing to your legal name on all of your personal accounts such as your bank, credit card, investment accounts, travel loyalty accounts, travel programs (such as Global Entry), etc.
This can be a long and arduous process, but NewlyNamed provides packages that make your name change a smooth and easy process. We provide personalized name change kits complete with everything you need to change your last name due to marriage, divorce, or court order.
Divorce Name Change
You can change your name legally after divorce once it is finalized by the courts. A divorce decree typically contains specific language around the judge’s order which allows each spouse to revert back to a maiden name or birth name after the divorce is finalized. Most of the time the divorce decree will specify the exact name each spouse can change their names to following the divorce. You’ll want to hang on to the divorce decree since it will serve as the legal name change document when changing your name due to divorce.
If your divorce decree does not allow you to reclaim your birth name or maiden name, you must either attempt to amend your divorce decree or petition for a court-ordered name change. It’s important that your divorce decree states that you can change your name since this detail can be overlooked until you try and update your name with the Social Security Administration to make your name change official.
If there are errors in your divorce decree or if you’d like a different surname, you can file a petition with the court to modify it. If the court does not allow modification, you will likely need to file a petition for a court-ordered name change.
You should always keep proof of your original name (birth certificate) in case you run into any difficulties with using it again.
Changing your name due to divorce is similar to changing your name due to marriage. You can begin the name change process once you receive your divorce decree.
The first place to update your name after your marriage is with the Social Security Administration (SSA). After you receive confirmation of your name change with the SSA, you can update your driver’s license/state ID card, passport, and other accounts.
The process to get a Real ID is the same. If you have a Real ID and only need to update your last name after a divorce, you need to submit your application and certified divorce papers to the DMV to get your new ID and start changing your name with other organizations and accounts.
Court-Ordered Name Change
Most other situations require a court-ordered name change. A legal name change for reasons other than marriage or divorce is a court-ordered name change and is usually because of personal preference.
It’s a common misconception but not all states require you to file your name change in court if it falls under the state’s usage method. So make sure to do your research and check your state’s legal name change laws before you consider changing your name.
If you decide to go through and seek a court-ordered name change, the first step usually involves filing a petition with your local court clerk. You can visit your local county court clerk to get the appropriate forms. Once complete, you must submit them to the court clerk along with the filing fee, which varies from state to state and county to county.
Here is how to legally change your name with a court order.
- Visit your local court clerk in person or online to get the application and forms needed for your name change petition.
- Complete the paperwork and submit all related documents and evidence with the petition. You must also pay any filing fees or court costs at this time.
- Wait for your petition to be processed. Most court-ordered name changes must be heard in person, so expect notification of a court date. Go to court, answer the judge’s questions, and hopefully, they will approve your name change.
- You may be required to place an ad in the classifieds of a prominent local newspaper announcing your name change due to your state, county, or city requirements.
- Follow through by changing your name legally on your Social Security card, state-issued ID, and passport to make it official.
Who Should You Inform of Your New Name?
Can you change your legal name and leave your old name on financial and tax accounts? No, you cannot do this legally. Once your name change has been granted and you have new identification documents, you’ll need to reach out to other government entities and other organizations.
Everyone should update their name with the Social Security Administration and the IRS as soon as a new Real ID has been obtained. Although there are ways to indicate that a social security card has not been updated to reflect a legal name change on tax forms, it is far better to make sure that they match and are updated with the IRS. Your social security card, ID card, and legal name must all match certain professional licenses, which should also be updated immediately.
Once the legal and governmental obligations are met, where do I go to change my last name? Here are some suggestions that apply to most people:
- Social Security Administration (SSA)
- Passport office
- Your employer
- Bank and other financial accounts and institutions
- Mortgage service provider or landlord
- Public assistance offices, including the Veterans Administration(VA)
- USPS (if you’ve moved)
- Insurance agencies
- Registrar of Voters or Election Board
- Current employers and schools
- Creditors and debtors
- Mobile phone, internet, and utility companies
- Streaming services, memberships, delivery services, etc.
What Happens if Your Name Change Request is Denied?
There is a chance that your name change request could be denied. This could happen if the name you chose is too confusing, obscene, offensive, racially derisive, or otherwise inappropriate. The judge could also believe that you are changing your name for a suspicious reason and deny your petition on those grounds.
Depending on the reason for denial and your state, you may be able to appeal the decision. Some states do not allow for an appeal, and others limit who can file an appeal or in what situations an appeal will be considered.
Do You Have More Name Change Questions? Get In Touch With NewlyNamed!
Our name change experts are standing by. We understand how harrowing it can be to legally change your name, especially in less-than-ideal situations. Once your new legal name is granted, changing your name with all of the organizations, businesses, and institutions you work within your personal and professional lives is time-consuming and difficult.
NewlyNamed makes the name change process easy by providing you with a personalized name change kit to help you with updating all of your federal and state documents with step-by-step instructions.
Hello, I recently got married but I want to change my first AND last name because my first name is misspelled on my license and either way I want to shorten it. How do I do it and where do I start?
Hi Lilibeth! If you want to change or alter your first name you must petition for a court-ordered name change through the country courthouse where you permanently live. I suggest giving them a call to learn more about how to start a petition. -Colie
My husband and I got married two years ago but I never changed my last name during the signing of the papers. What steps do I need to take to change my last name to his?
Hi Tamara! If your marriage certificate does not list a ‘married name’, then you can use your marriage certificate to start the name change process by updating your name with the Social Security Administration. If your marriage certificate lists a ‘married name’ and it’s listed as your maiden/current name, then you will need to contact your county courthouse to petition for a legal name change before starting the name change process. -Colie
Hi there I changed my full name after being adopted at the age of six. Me and my partner don’t want to get legally married but I want to take his last name is that possible without a marriage certificate?
Hi Monroe! Yes, you can take his last name by petitioning for a court-ordered name change. Contact your local county courthouse to learn how to apply for a legal name change.
I have a new passport so my name on my drivers license and passport are the same which is my given name not my nickname. My global card has my nickname on it which is what my old passport had on it. What do I need to do to get my first name changed on my global card to match my drivers license and passport?
Hi Sheryl, We recently wrote a blog post covering how to change your name on Global Entry – https://newlynamed.com/global-entry-name-change/
My husband had his name legally changed when he was 8 years old, his birth certificate has the old name he was born with. How do I change it to his current name for the new Real ID license.
Hi Madeleine! Your husband will need to obtain a certified copy of his amended birth certificate from his birth state’s vital records office (see How To Get A Copy Of Your Birth Certificate). In order to obtain a REAL ID, he will need to provide identity and residency documentation his state requires as well as proof of all name changes since birth. So when he visits the DMV, he will need to present his original birth certificate as well as his amended birth certificate. Let me know if you have any other questions! -Colie