Your name is one of the most fundamental parts of your identity. The notion of changing your name legally can seem quite dramatic, since that has been the official name you’ve always had. However, while less common than in past eras, more and more people are deciding to formally apply to alter their first, middle, and/or last names.
Motivations for legally changing names vary greatly based on individual circumstances and life situations. But many people, regardless of their location or backgrounds, share the same types of reasons. You might think your situation is unique and find that vast numbers of other people have very similar circumstances. Here is a deeper look at the wide range of motivations.
Marriage remains one of the most prominent life events that prompts name changes. Traditions around names and marriage are evolving, but continue in many forms:
- Women taking their husband’s last name remains entrenched as a marital custom. Some view shedding their maiden name as a symbolic adoption of a new shared identity as a family unit. Some couples want to choose their own, brand new family name.
- Men sometimes opt to legally take on their wife’s last name too, though this practice is less frequent. Occasionally they will hyphenate, merging their surname with their spouse’s. Some spouses who took their partners last name in marriage later decide they prefer to have their maiden name back.
- With marriage, often children’s names, after a time, may be changed to a new family name.
Same-sex couples sometimes blend elements of each of their surnames into a new, jointly-created hybrid name that better represents their new partnership.
- Along with just last names, some marrying couples opt to legally tweak their existing middle names or suffixes like Jr., Sr., etc. when they wed to further mark the occasion.
- Divorce conversely often motivates reverting to the maiden name held pre-marriage as a way to psychologically and emotionally separate from the ex-spouse. And sometimes a divorce may inspire one or both spouses to take a brand new name for heritage, remembrance or aspirations about their new future.
Many major life changes or events outside of marriage also commonly precipitate name changes:
- One of the most common reasons for name change is to legally take a name that you may have been going by all of your life. This situation is often surprising to the person who needs the name change, because the biological parent may not have told their child, or may have died before getting a chance to explain, or because it never seemed important enough to mention, or for a million other reasons that happen in real life. Many children were born to one biological set of parents who then separated or divorced when their child was still an infant. When the custodial parent (usually the mother) remarried, the child grew up with a different last name than the child originally had on its birth certificate. The new family often never legally changed the child’s name legally, so now that child will need a legal name change to get Real ID, Passport and other strict identity documents. There are LOTS of variations of this that many people have in common.
- Some people grow up with a nickname that is carried into adulthood and career. Many times people in this situation want to take that nickname as their official, legal name so that they can use it in banking, business, professional licensing and every other legal purpose.Gender transitions almost always involve legally changing one’s name to finally align with gender identity. New first names are often chosen specifically because they better reflect the person’s true gender.
- Immigration to a new country leads some to formally adopt more Americanized or Anglicized names as they assimilate into a new culture. Also, many immigration circumstances cause a person’s name to become involuntarily changed which then needs to be legally corrected.
- Religious conversions frequently lead to believers taking on a theologically significant new name after spiritual inspiration and to more fully embrace their belief.
Adoptions and guardianships, for both child and adult situations, motivate name changes to affirm membership in new families and to facilitate school, medical and social circumstances. This may be initiated by the adoptive parents or guardian.
- Survivors leaving abusive relationships or domestic violence situations sometimes elect to shed their associated name to help empower their new independence and separation from former partners.Similarly, legal name change, and sometimes confidential name change, can provide new names without connection to the old names for increased safety after abuse and other dangerous conditions.
Seeking closer familial ties or affirming lineage often inspires name changes:
- Children or spouses sometimes hyphenate names to retain and honor a maiden name alongside the new married surname rather than fully replacing their birth name.
- Passing down maiden names across generations reflects a strong sense of female family heritage.
- Incorporating meaningful ancestral surnames into your existing name allows paying homage to your family history and lineage.
- Choosing to pass a special family surname specifically to children or grandchildren denotes a family legacy.
For some, a name change represents a new chapter and forward looking identity:
- Survivors of childhood abuse, bullying, trauma, neglect or discrimination may feel empowered and liberated shedding the old name associated with painful memories.
- Criminals released from prison sometimes adopt new names to symbolize starting over and dissociating from their past crimes. However, this strategy carries risks as judges may reject petitions, particularly from recent felons or ones who have unresolved criminal obligations
- Major career changes or reinvention later in life may warrant altering names to properly suit an industry or professional reputation.
- Even common, simple name changes can simply mark the milestone of maturity and adulthood.
In many cases, personal preferences motivate name changes:
- Some change overly common names to something more unique, while unusual or strange names are modified to avoid constant mispronunciation or spelling corrections.
- Difficult-to-spell or difficult-to-pronounce names motivate some to legally adopt simpler name options.
- Mockable names that invite teasing, jokes, and ridicule during youth motivate children to change their names to avoid lifelong stigma.
- Pop culture leads some fans to unofficially or officially adopt names of admired celebrities, artists or athletes.
- Strong affinity for particular name meanings, origins, or linguistic aesthetics can inspire changes.
The Name Change Process
While motivations vary greatly, the legal process for changing names predominantly follows a common path:
- Petition the proper local court and submit name change forms along with IDs, documentation, and any required fees.
- Pass background checks to verify identity and check for anything disqualifying.
- Publish notification of the requested name change in local newspapers or gazettes as required public notice.
- Serve notice on any required people or places and supply proof of service to court.
- Attend court hearing before a judge to confirm your identity and answer any questions.
- If approved, receive a signed court order legally affirming the name change.
- Update all identification documents, accounts, certificates, licenses, registrations, and records.
Though the time frame and specifics vary by state, typically the court approval takes 3-12 weeks followed by 1-2 months of administrative updates. The entire name change process can span 2-6 months from start to completion. Patience and diligence is required.
It is also recommended to hire a name change specialist to assist navigating details, avoiding issues, and ensuring smooth approval. Support groups also exist for things like transgender name changes that facilitate community and guidance.
Petitioners should also brace for potential roadblocks:
- Convicted felons may struggle getting approval or require waiting periods since courts can deny changes that seem designed to defraud or avoid obligations.
- Errors or inconsistencies in paperwork trigger delays as all documents must precisely match.
- Not providing sufficient justification for the change during hearings risks denial.
- Failure to publish required public notices can nullify the entire process.
- Refusal to conform to court rules around things like only allowing one name change per year also limits options.
- Name changes must be in the interest of the person who is changing names without causing harm, damage, public confusion or fraud.
Proper research and preparation helps avoid pitfalls derailing approval. But the process still benefits from flexibility and persistence through any bureaucratic headaches.
Weighing the Decision
Before pursuing a legal name change, carefully weigh the pros and cons:
- Will this align with my personal and professional best interests? Or will it cause too much internal or external harm or confusion?
- Will estimated costs such as fees, new IDs, records changes be manageable?
- Is my commitment to using this new name long term?
- How important is this change versus simply making my preferred name a nickname?
- Does keeping my existing name still hold primary importance or bonds to my past?
- Will a name change introduce hassles or delays related to background checks, records, travel, etc that you’re doing right now?
- How supportive will family, friends, colleagues be regarding this change?
A new name marks a new chapter. But relinquishing an old name also severs ties to the past. Make sure you are fully ready for both the logistical headache and identity shift before finalizing the change.