Summarize My Name Change Options

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Most of us, when we think about the "getting married/name change" process think about a bride taking on her partner's last name and leaving her own maiden name behind. This is because, for a long time, that is the way that it worked almost everywhere. If Sophia Jones was marrying Jessie Smith, her new name was going to be Sophia Smith. No muss, no fuss.

Tradition isn't for everyone, though. For some people, keeping their independent names works best. For others, it's hyphenation. Some grooms will take their bride's last name. Sometimes a couple will even choose an entirely new last name for both spouses to adopt. It's no wonder people are confused about what is and what is not allowed to happen to a person's name during the name change process.

In this article we are going to talk about some of the most common types of name change scenarios that are associated with marriage. Before we do, though, remember: each state has its own laws regarding how extensive a name change a person can expect to accomplish via marriage. Make sure you check with your own state or county records office to make sure you know what you can and cannot do where you live (or where you are getting married).

Can I change my first name too? What if I (or both of us) just want whole new names?

Most states have very strict laws that dictate what you can and can't do with a marriage-based name change. Typically you have to keep your original first name and then you can mess with your middle and last names to create a common surname for the both of you.

If you want new first names or you want to create a surname that is not based at least in part on your current surnames, you'll have to apply for a formal full name change and get it approved by a judge.

Can I change my middle name (to reflect my maiden name)?

Most of the time this is allowed. You can drop your current middle name completely and adopt your maiden name as your new middle name. Alternatively, many states allow you to adopt your maiden name as part of your middle name. Some of these states will require you to join these two names with a hyphen. Check with your current state and county laws to make sure before you fill out your application.

My state does not recognize same sex marriage or civil unions? How do I take my partner's last name without a marriage certificate?

More often than not, if your state will not acknowledge any type of same-sex union (these states are getting fewer and farther between every day), you will have to go through a formal name change with your county court.

Make sure, if you are worried about legal rights, that in addition to formally changing your name to reflect your spouse's surname, you work with your lawyer to make sure that you are named your partner's power of attorney, etc. Sharing a surname won't allow you the same legal protections that are covered by marriage and civil unions.

I want to go back to my maiden name but stay married. Can I do that?

You have two options here. The first is keeping your new legal name and simply reverting back to your maiden name conversationally and professionally. This is obviously the easiest way to do this. Simply let people know that you're only using your married surname on legal documents and that you prefer to be called by your "old" name.

If you want to formally change it (which would require changing the name on your Passport, Driver's License, etc.) you'll likely have to file a petition for a name change with your local records office and county court. This can take a few weeks to complete but is relatively painless.

I'm getting divorced and want to take my maiden name back? How do I do that?

When you file for divorce, your divorce papers will likely have a line item in which you declare what your name will be after your divorce is finalized. Some states have very strict rules about this—you'll likely only be allowed to revert back to your maiden name. If you want an entirely new last name after your divorce, you'll likely have to petition for it.

NOTE: In some states, getting divorced is all you need to do to revert back to your maiden name. You can use your divorce papers as the "court order" when you're changing your name with Social Security, the bank, etc. Oregon is one of those states. In other states, though, you'll have to fill out an additional name change petition and see a judge before your name can legally be changed back to your maiden name. A lawyer can help you navigate this process.

If I have to go to court, how does that process work?

The details will vary from state to state. Typically, though, they take on some form of the following:

  1. Choose a name that the court will accept. Almost every state has rules about what type of name you can and cannot choose for yourself. For example:
    • You cannot choose a name obviously meant to be fraud. E.g.: you cannot rename yourself Bill Gates.
    • Your name must be pronounceable and understandable (you cannot choose an intentionally confusing name)—no illustrations or punctuation marks or numbers.
    • Your name cannot be or include racial slurs or fighting words.
  2. Fill out the forms required by your local records office and court. Make at least a couple of copies of these forms.
  3. Have your forms looked over by a records clerk or lawyer to make sure they're filled out correctly and completely.
  4. Formally file your forms and pay any fees required.
  5. Find out if you have to publish an "Order to Show Cause" or something similar and, if you are required to do this, follow the directions given to you. Most of the time this is simply publishing the order in a court approved newspaper or local periodical for a few weeks before your hearing date. You'll be given instructions about what to do. If you aren't—ask the clerk with whom you're filing your paperwork if this step is required where you live.
  6. Appear in court.
  7. Get your official decree from the court.
  8. Start changing your name! Start with the Social Security Administration and DMV and go from there.

How much will this whole thing cost?

The entire process depends on how you are getting your name changed. If you're changing your name because you're getting married, the cost is usually absorbed by your marriage license filing fee. If you're changing your name with the court, the costs vary from state to state. The average is usually around two or three hundred dollars.

Remember: the laws surrounding name changes vary from state to state. The best thing to do, if you want to make sure all of your bases are covered, is to call your local county records clerk and ask what you should do to get the name you want.

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1 Comment

  1. Vicki

    Looks like you forgot one option… Not changing your name at all. Seriously if you need to cycle through a bunch of different name combinations you should probably take a step back and reconsider or at least hold off until later when you're for sure.


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