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How to Legally Change Your Name

There are several significant life events at which persons may choose to change the name they were given at birth. These events include marriage, divorce, and adoption. However, people can choose to change their legal names at virtually any time. The action needed to change your name may as simple as regularly using the new name in public. For example, authors who use pen names to publish work do not have to do anything special to use a name different from a birth name.

However, to change names on most legal documents, from passports and birth certificates to social security cards and driver's licenses, a court order is usually required. The process to change your name by such an order is usually fairly simple.

Marriage, Divorce and Adoption

Name changes may automatically take place as part of marriage or divorce. There is no legal requirement for one spouse to use the other spouse's surname. Either spouse may assume the surname of the other or create an entirely new name such as a hyphenated variation. Choosing a new surname is entirely the choice of each spouse. To accomplish the change, all a person needs to do is sign the marriage certificate provided after the marriage with the new name.

A name change may automatically occur as the result of divorce if requested by either spouse in the forms that initiate divorce proceedings. Some states allow a divorcing spouse to choose any name, while other states may only allow restoration of a former name. The divorce decree will include a provision changing a former spouse's name. The names of any children born to or adopted by divorcing spouses cannot be changed in the divorce process. A separate action must be initiated by a parent to change the name of a child.

A person who is being adopted may change his or her name as part of the process. Many adoptees choose to take the surname of their new parents, but a name change is not required. The adoptee may choose to retain a birth name. If the adoptee chooses a new name, the name will be made official in the adoption decree, and a new birth certificate will be issued with the adoptee's chosen name.

Name Change by Court Order

Every state has a procedure allowing people to change their names or to ask for their child's name to be changed. For adults, the process is fairly quick and uncomplicated. Changing the name of a minor may require a few more steps and, at times, added cost.

An adult seeking a name change must fill out a short petition and provide information including the person's current name, the requested new name, birthdate and a stated reason for wanting the new name. The petition will also usually require the person to certify under penalty of perjury that the name change is not being requested to mislead anyone or to avoid civil or criminal liability. Most states also require that the new name not be obscene, offensive or racist.

The completed form is submitted to the court along with a filing fee, and a hearing is scheduled. In some states, such as Washington, the hearing may be held the same day in many county courts. Other states, such as New Jersey, require additional actions such as publishing notice of the name change request and the scheduled hearing date in a newspaper before the hearing.

A person petitioning the court for a name change must start a separate action to change the name of a minor child. Permission from the other parent must be obtained or extra steps will be required before a court will consider the request. The non-consenting parent must be advised of the court date and proof provided to the court of such notification. The non-consenting parent will be allowed an opportunity to challenge the proposed name change.

Some states require that the children of a specific age consent to a name change. For example, New York, Nevada and Washington require children between the ages 14 and 18 to consent to changing their names.

If parents cannot agree on a name change for their child, the judge will make the final call. Among factors the court will consider are how long the child has had a given name, the potential effect of the name change on the child's relationship with each parent, any potential problems the child may experience by having the present or proposed name and the wishes of the child.

Name change hearings are usually very brief. A judge will review the file to ensure necessary consents have been obtained and will usually ask a few questions to confirm the information provided in the petition. Once the name change order is signed, you should obtain certified copies from the court clerk's office.


Once a name change is final, a notice of the change should be given to schools, employers, banks, creditors, phone companies and insurance agencies. Government agencies that should be notified may include Social Security, Department of Motor Vehicles, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Veterans Administration, U.S. Post Office, public assistance agencies and any taxing authorities. Generally, a simple written notice will be sufficient. However, some financial or government institutions may ask for a copy of the marriage certificate, divorce decree or court order as proof.

Wills, health care directives, deeds, titles, powers of attorney and similar documentation should also be changed. While a name change will not invalidate a will using the former name, making a will using the new name may reduce potential confusion and delay in the future.

Most state courts provide a packet of instructions along with forms required for name changes. These are often available online. Individuals seeking to change their own names can usually accomplish the task without legal assistance unless unusual circumstances exist. Parents seeking to change the name of a child, particularly when the other parent objects, would be wise to consult with an experienced family law attorney. If you have any questions concerning changing your name in New Jersey, call the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen at (201) 845-7400 for a consultation.

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