Before you can do much to change your name, you need to get your name changed with the Social Security Administration. That social security card is the key to getting through other name changes (like at the DMV, your bank, etc) smoothly and with as little hassle as possible. So how do you ensure that changing your name with social security is as painless as possible?
Before You Do Anything Else
You'll need to complete the SS-5 application, which is a form made freely available from the Social Security Administration. A social security card name change begins at this document.
Updating your social security card through the mail
Okay, you've got your form filled out and in front of you. Now what do you do?
This is where you make a very important choice. See—you can easily drop your form and supporting paperwork (marriage certificate, etc) into an envelope and mail it off. Then you just sit back and wait for your new social security card to show up. The Social Security Administration will mail you your new card as well as your supporting documents back to you… in about two to six weeks, or so. Yes, how long it takes for your name to change can vary a considerable amount, depending on how heavy their queue or backlog is.
Remember, the Social Security Administration is a huge, sprawling organization that deals with a multitude of issues, of which name change is just a part. If you don't mind waiting up to six weeks to really dig in to changing your name, this is the way to go.
Changing your name, in person, at your local Social Security office
If you don't want to wait that long and would rather (for lack of better terminology) bang it all out in a day or two, there is another route you can take: you can actually gather up your forms and pay a visit to your Social Security Administration Office. You'll get a temporary card that you can then take with you to the bank, the DMV, etc.
But isn't the Social Security office a nightmare?
You probably have visions of Joe-vs-The-Volcano like lines of people all trudging forward an inch at a time to take care of their business. This is certainly the stereotype and, if you've been down the Social Security Google rabbit hole, you've undoubtedly read a few horror stories about what visiting the office was like.
Here's some good news: it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, if you approach it well, the entire process shouldn't take much time at all.
Here is how to ensure that your visit to the SSA goes smoothly and is incident free.
1. Make sure you have all of the proper forms filled out
The primary form the SSA provides (Application for a Social Security Card) is there specifically to have your name changed with social security. Use that. This way you won't have to worry that you've found an old form or, worse, a totally wrong form. Also, don't sign nor date the form just yet. If you're going in person, it's better for you to apply your signature when you're in front of the clerk who's working on your application, so that he/she can witness the act.
2. Get all of your supporting documentation together
You are going to need to have the following documents with you:
Legal documents proving your name change: This is almost always going to be your marriage certificate (or divorce decree). This point requires repeating—you need your marriage certificate. Specifically, a certified copy of your marriage certificate, and not your marriage license.
Marriage license or Marriage certificate? What's the difference?
There's been a longtime point of confusion, that's been going on forever, regarding these two documents. The Internet is littered with various articles, Q&A help sections, and forums conflating the two by telling folks a marriage license is an acceptable document to serve as proof of name change. That's false. A marriage license is the document you receive before you get married, which provides you legal authorization to get married. The marriage certificate is a document you receive after you are married, and it's what the Social Security Administration is expecting in order to change your name after marriage.
You'll also want to make sure it's a certified copy. Whether you're mailing in your name change forms or doing it in person, if you end up bringing in a photocopy of your marriage certificate made on your home office copy machine, you'll be laughed right out of the building. Well, you may not face ridicule, but you'll be politely told to supply an authentic, certified copy before you're sent packing.
You lie! I used my marriage license to change my name
Ok, you're right, and you're wrong. And it's not what you think. There are some counties and states where the marriage license and marriage certificate are actually one and the same. The heading's the same. Whoever officiates the marriage will file it with the county recorder's office. The only difference is, the status changes. Once you're married, the document is now considered your marriage certificate. Like a caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly.
But I got a certified copy of my marriage license?
Ok, we're getting deep into the rabbit hole, but there is such a thing as a certified copy of a marriage license. It's typically referred to as a marriage record, which isn't the same thing as a marriage certificate. Marriage records (photocopy and certified) are typically issued by a county clerk's office (where you apply for a marriage license), while a certified copy of a marriage certificate is gotten from the county recorder's office.
Just get a certified copy of your marriage certificate and all will be well. Moving on…
Non-marriage-related name change, for you other folks
If you're changing your name for reasons that aren't marital, you'll need the paperwork from the court that approved your name change. If you want to change your name in a way that your state doesn't recognize as part of the marriage name changing process, you'll need to petition the court. For instance, if you want to also change your first name, you'll have to get a court order granted by a judge.
Identity documents—Are you who you say you are?
Your current driver's license, state ID or passport should be sufficient.
Still, not everyone has a driver's license or state ID or passport. If that's who you are, don't fret, the door isn't going to close on you. The SSA will work with you by asking for alternative, secondary documents, such as a health insurance card or Medicaid card. Or even a school ID or employee badge.
Sometimes military IDs and other forms of identification will work, but before you visit the office it's a good idea to call ahead and make sure they will accept what you want to use.
This can be your birth certificate or your passport.
If you aren't a citizen, you'll need to provide proof of your immigration status.
3. Grab a folder
This will help you save time. No, really—it sounds stupid but think about it: do you want to be the person who finally gets up to the window only to have to dig through her bag for a half an hour because she didn't keep all of the things she needed together and half of them have been buried or lost or, worse, left in the car (or even worse—at home)? Nobody wants to be that woman. Or guy… everything we're talking about works for you too, if you're changing your name.
The folder will serve as the catch all location for all of the things you'll need to provide when you want to change your name: the forms you've printed or picked up and the supporting documentation you've gathered. Keeping everything in one location saves everybody time.
Put all of your forms and the supporting documentation mentioned above in the folder. Put the folder in your bag (or your briefcase—which is totally gender neutral, btw).
4. Visit your local Social Security Administration office
Yes, this is a silly bullet point with a microscopic accompanying paragraph, but it's one of the most important, because it give us the opportunity to point to the handy Social Security office locator that'll pinpoint exactly where you'll need to go.
5. Be prepared to wait
Sadly there is no real way to help you avoid a long wait. The SSA office is like most other places: traffic ebbs and flows. It's a good idea, though, to avoid going at lunch time, first thing in the morning or right before the end of the business day. Mid morning and mid afternoons are typically the best time to go. Mid week is also a good bet.
It's a good idea to bring a book or magazine with you to read as most SSA offices frown on people using their cell phones or using handheld gaming devices (as these can be loud and wearing earbuds could cause you to miss your turn).
You could try to phone them in advance to determine if you can make an appointment. The SSA does provide appointments for various services, but name change may not be a sufficient enough rationale for them to allocate you an appointment spot. It certainly doesn't hurt to ask, especially if there are extenuating circumstances (e.g., health-related, disability).
6. Access your reservoir of patience
Remember that the line at the Social Security office is not usually the fault of the people working behind the window. Many offices are understaffed these days and the employees are just as stressed out about the number of people who are waiting as the people waiting themselves. The calmer you are, the less irritating your visit is going to be.
You can be sure that you will spend more time waiting than you will actually working with someone. The time you spend in front of an employee will probably only be a few minutes. Your case worker needs to only verify the authenticity of your documents, enter in the new information and then print out your temporary card. If you have everything prepared ahead of time, you shouldn't have to worry too much about the process taking an extended period of time.
7. Take your "temporary card", thank the person who worked with you and go!
You are now all set up to change your name everywhere else… which, if you stick with in person visits, should only take the rest of the day (maybe part of the second if the wait at the SSA office was extraordinarily long)!
You'll get your real card in the mail about a week after you visit the office. Sign it and store it somewhere safe!
Next stop: Changing your name at the DMV
Going to the driver's license office right after getting your name changed with the Social Security office is the typical, next go-to route for most folks. You may want to do yourself a favor and wait 24 hours before doing so. Reason being, the DMV may query the SSA database to confirm your name change, and if there's a name mismatch (due to the SSA database not having been updated yet) they may not be able to process it… yet. It's a quirk of timing, but something to keep in mind for the impatient amongst you.
If you've got a great, or awful, social security story, share it in the comments section. If you've got any questions or need some help making heads or tails of name change, feel free to ask. We're here to help.
Good luck. And happy name changing.