Sunday, December 23, 2012

How to Change Your Name Legally

Whether changing your name for marriage, divorce, or other reasons, American society has seen fit to make each of us reinvent the wheel. 

Apology: Sorry, this is very US-centric.

Despite the fact that thousands of people change their names each year (the BBC estimates 58,000 in the UK alone in 2011), it is as though name changes don't even occur to the majority of American businesses. So much so, that 2/3 of the places where I needed to change my name (approximately 10 companies) did not address name changes anywhere in their help sections or on any other part of the websites. Two of those provided instructions for if your name was misspelled. They were banks, credit card companies, and utility companies. I am sure they deal with this issue multiple times a week, but they don't see fit to give you any instructions how to do it. That is just bizarre

Changing Only Your Last Name Due to Marriage or Divorce
Changing your last name legally upon marriage or divorce is just plain easy. You list your new name on a form and POOF, you're done. There are likely limits on what you can choose, such as taking either spouse's last name or hyphenating the two. In some states, men can change their last name upon marriage just as easily as women. In others, men have to go through the "normal" legal name change process if the husband wants to adopt the wife's name or a hyphenated name. But in 9 out of 10 name changes, the desired name change is automatic, and the changee ends up with a form that says he or she has a new last name. At that point, your job is to update everyone else to this change. 

The most likely marriage-related snag at this point: your officiant must return the completed marriage license to the state. This gets even more complicated if s/he ruins the license or loses it before returning it. However, it will still get done. The FAQ on their website probably even addresses the possibility. More likely, if you have an issue, it's due to a procrastinating or disorganized officiant. 

You can't do anything until you get the marriage certificate. You just have to wait. It seems to differ from state to state whether you're automatically provided a copy of your marriage certificate. New York does it automatically, but New Jersey makes you pay extra for it. Check what your state requires. If you need to order a copy, do so as early as possible. You may even be able to pay for it at the time you pick up the marriage license.

As for divorce, your major snag will be a slow divorce. Sorry. There could also be a significant delay after the divorce is granted for the court order to be mailed to you or your attorney. You can't do anything without the court order that says you have a new (old?) last name. 

"Regular" Legal Name Changes
If you want to change your first or middle name or change your last name for a reason other than divorce or marriage...that's harder. I can't tell you how to change your name legally because that is governed by state law and is a different process in each state. In fact, if you could have several residencies, you should check the process in each of the states because there can be significant differences in the effort and cost required. For example, many states still require you to run a legal notice about your name change in newspapers for a certain period of time. You have to pay for that, and it's rarely cheap. (Traditionally, newspapers were supposed to prevent you from defrauding creditors...that doesn't quite hold up in the internet age.)

Using a Maiden Name Professionally
As a lawyer, this idea came up often among my female classmates (and myself): "I plan to work under my maiden name, but legally change my name at marriage because it's just easier." And in certain lines of work, it might even be safer! In my own case and in the case of several academic friends, it is often assumed that a woman will not work under a married name if she has published professionally under the maiden name. I heard many girls say they would choose their name based on whether they published or married first! 

Problem: No one seems to know how to do this or whether it is even legal. As a lawyer, I called the state bar's ethics hotline to discuss the issue. The ethics line had no idea. Again, why has this not come up as an issue? There is incredible demand for this kind of name arrangement, but no one seems to know how to do it legally.

If you're a professional who has to be licensed (medicine, nursing, lawyers, accountants, etc), you should start with your licensing agency. Rules will likely change state to state. Take advantage of an ethics hotline if you have one, especially if you are a lawyer. 

It seems that, at least in my case, my license must match my legal name. I must also advertise under the licensed name, if I were to advertise. The hairier question is whether I can print business cards or put a sign on my door with my maiden name. And if I don't practice law, can I work under a maiden name different from my legal name? Or must I always "put myself out there" as the licensed lawyer entity? For malpractice reasons, it makes sense to force lawyers (and doctors) to choose one name. It's also easier to check records for misconduct if you aren't practicing under one name but licensed under another. So it's not like this is out of left field. It used to make sense. But does it still make sense today? I don't know.

If you aren't licensed in order to do your job, you have a lot more leeway. You should be able to tell your employer what name you want to go by, but your legal name will need to be on the payroll, taxation, and other human resources paperwork. However, you should be able to get business cards and name plates in your maiden name.

Using a Hebrew Name Professionally
What if you want to use a different first name professionally? For instance, if you wanted to go by your Hebrew name. I don't have much experience in this area, but my instinct says that you can go by whatever first name you want, and an employer doesn't have much say in the matter so long as it's not an inappropriate or confusing name. However, maybe an employer would have some success if your chosen name were difficult to pronounce and spell while your English name was not. That said, I don't think it's a good argument. (Again, disclaimer: I don't know employment law. I just think an employer is going to have a hard time forcing you to use a first name you don't want to use. That just seems logical and like any jury would agree.) 

I heard a rumor on Facebook about someone who had requested to go by her Hebrew name and the employer forbid it. There may be a difference if the desired name change happens after working for your employer under your English name. In that case, the employer has a good argument that they will have to pay for new business cards for you, new stationary with the corrected name, pay a webmaster to update the website, pay to change the names on the doors, etc. If that's a problem in your case, you can offer to foot the bill or at least part of it. If you offer to pay and the employer still refuses, you should probably talk to an employment lawyer. You may be dealing with discrimination, and that sounds like pretty awesome proof - especially if you offered to pay in full. (Again, not an expert. Just seems logical to me.)

The Nitty Gritty - Which Name to Use?
I found that "name change checklists" for name changes are totally geared toward newlywed women, and that most are pretty terrible. So I decided to write my own guide, since a great number of converts will change their name at some point, whether taking on a spouse's last name (it's not unusual among male converts to take on a "Jewish" last name from a wife), changing the first name to one's Hebrew name, or changing the middle name to one's Hebrew name. 

Sidenote: I think changing your middle name to be your Hebrew name and/or maiden name might be the most clever idea. (Personally, I'm not a fan of hyphenating, but to each his own.) Unfortunately, if you want both names legally but don't want to hyphenate, you're going to have to change your middle name to your maiden name. By adding both names, you can cover all your bases and have legal proof of any possible name that someone might use to write you a check or to address mail to you. Of course, this assumes you don't use your current middle name. If you do, perhaps you should get rid of the name(s) you don't use. Likewise, you would have a similar issue if you have a Hebrew name of more than one name. You will probably have to pick.

If we're looking at the legal name as a practical item for identification documents, you only need the names you actually plan to use or someone else might. For example:
Firstname Lastname
Firstname Marriedname
Firstname Lastname Marriedname
Hebrewname Lastname
Hebrewname Marriedname
Hebrewname Lastname Marriedname

Theoretically, you could run into registrations, mail, or checks using any combination of those names. However, most states' driver's licenses will only hold 3 names, not four. Then you really need to be strategic.
#Protip: I do not recommend changing your name solely to your Hebrew name. If you converted (or became religious) as an adult, there are a lot of people who know you by your English name and you have a significant paper trail under it. I personally believe you should always keep the birth name you used most regularly as part of your "legal" name. You are free to disagree with me, but I will laugh at you when you can't cash birthday checks from your grandmother.
Let's consider an example. (Totally made up. Sorry if it turns out to be a real person.)

Birth name: Eleanor Regina Fitzgerald
Hebrew name: Chaya Ilana bat Avraham
Automatic name change at marriage: Eleanor Regina Schwartz 
(Of course, she could have chosen Fitzgerald-Schwartz)

Our fictional name changer could choose to do a "regular" name change after her marriage to incorporate her Hebrew name and/or maiden name:
Possibility #1: Eleanor Fitzgerald Schwartz
Possibility #2: Eleanor Chaya Schwartz
Possibility #3: Eleanor Chaya Fitzgerald Schwartz

Note that Possibility #3 may not work so well on your driver's license. (To be honest, I don't know how many names the US government will allow on a passport.) If the state only allows three names on the license, only the first middle name will be used. In that case, our fictional girl will have a license for Eleanor Chaya Schwartz. If it is important to you to have your maiden name on your ID, it is probably best to change your middle name to only the maiden name. In that case (Possibility #1), the ID would say Eleanor Fitzgerald Schwartz.

There may be a way around this, at least in some instances. If you go by a Hebrew name regularly, you may be able to tell businesses that you have an alternate name. Your bank or the post office may be able to make a note that things may be addressed to your Hebrew name. Of course, that's no guarantee that you won't run into problems when the note is accidentally erased or the employee claims s/he doesn't see any such note. 

Documents you will need:
Quite frankly, bring every piece of paper you have that proves you exist. If you didn't move, your shouldn't need to provide proof of residence (such as bank statements or utility bills). You will almost certainly need original documents at some point, though some places may accept a copy or your word. You won't need all of these, but the more you can collect, the easier a time you'll have.

Most importantly, the document that proves you may use your new name legally. Either:
  • Marriage certificate
  • Divorce decree
  • Court order from a "regular" name change
Other documents that can prove you exist:
  • Current driver's license or state ID with old name
  • Current social security card with old name (If you've never applied for one, don't bother under the old name)
  • Passport (Except for renewing your passport, it can probably be an expired passport)
  • Certified birth certificate
  • Various kinds of federal or state-issued ID, such as welfare benefit cards or military ID
  • Student ID, if it has your picture or birth date (I doubt you'll need this, but it can be helpful if you don't have some of the above)

Where to Change Your Name
Here is the fun "checklist" part. Remember that this list is not exhaustive, and I suggest making your personal list as exhaustive as possible so you don't forget anyone. For example, don't write "Change name with credit cards." Instead, write "Change name with Capital One. Change name with Chase Sapphire. Change name on Macy's card. Change name on BP card." And remember to ask for a new card to be issued. There may be a fee for the new card. 

I'm going to make this list as specific as possible, but please feel free to add suggestions in the comments. If they're good, I'll add them up here. This list is long. And that can be overwhelming. However, only a few of them need to be done quickly. The rest can be changed as you have interactions with those companies or organizations.

Legal stuff: 
Social Security Administration (you may be required to get your new card before changing your license, depending on your state)
DMV state IDs
Renew (or apply for) passport (this can be delayed indefinitely if you have no plans to travel abroad)
Voter registration
Notary public office (if you are one)
The IRS should automatically update its records based on the Social Security change (or so I'm told)
Legal contracts, if relevant
Regular banking:
Checking accounts
Savings accounts
Money market accounts
Order new checkbooks?
Safe deposit boxes
Investment accounts (Vanguard, Sharebuilder)
Mutual funds
Trust accounts
Stock you own (Contact who you bought them through or the company itself)
Store credit/refillable cards (Macy's, Nordstrom, Starbucks)
Gas cards (Shell, BP, Exxon)
Retirement: (May be done by you through a bank or through your employer or you may need to go through your employer's bank)
Other retirement accounts
Post office
Mortgage (for your home or investment properties)
Lease (if you rent)
Car registration
Car title (you might not be able to change this until the car is sold)
Utilities (electric, gas, water, garbage, sewage, etc)
Alarm company
Home phone
Cell phone
Student loan companies (remember that you may have more than one)
Car loans
Car leases
Personal loans
Your "professionals" (doctor, dentist, therapist, housekeeper, hairdresser, landscaping, attorney, accountant, veterinarian, chiropractor, masseuse, babysitter, drycleaner)
Professional organizations
Professional licensing organizations
Professional licenses (likely will need to purchase new wall copies)
Employee ID card
Tax forms (the same ones you did when hired)
Update former employers so that your new name and address will be used on anticipated W2s, 1099s, etc.
Your signature line on your emails
Business cards
New email?
Name plates/Door listings
Update the people who may refer others to you
Online professional listings
Websites (your individual personal one and/or your employer's)
Insurance or leases for work-provided cars
Employer-provided credit cards
Permissions to act on behalf of your company (for example, picking up packages at the post office)
Government security clearance (not sure, but certainly worth asking)
Companies that pay you (AdSense, Amazon Associates,, Ebay)
Alma maters (so they can hunt you down to ask you for money...I understand if you skip this one)
Alumni organizations
Hobby organizations
Fraternal organizations
Charitable groups you support
Charitable groups you volunteer with
Jewish stuff:
Your converting rabbi
Your converting beit din
The Jewish Agency, if you have an aliyah application on file
Your congregational membership (may also need to add a spouse to your membership)
Jewish student organization (Hillel, JSU)
Jewish organizations
Jewish subscriptions
Learning sites (Jewish Pathways, Partners in Torah, Aish Audio)
Gyms, yoga studios, health clubs
Clubs (Book clubs, music clubs, cheese clubs, wine clubs)
Online games
Library card
Video store card (I heard those still exist)
Other movie sources (Netflix, Redbox?)
Grocery/Produce delivery companies (co-ops, Fresh Direct)
Preparing for the Worst:
Life insurance
Health insurance
Disability insurance
Long-term care insurance
Renter's insurance
Homeowner's insurance
Flood insurance
Car/motorcycle insurance
Boat insurance
Any other kind of insurance
Living wills/healthcare proxies/healthcare directives
May want to open a new "professional sounding" email address with your new name
Signature line of your personal email (and send a mass email to update people to the change)
School ID card
Public transit card (if relevant)
iTunes, other music players that use your credit card
Social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+,, Goodreads)
Frequent flier cards
Discount cards
Courtesy cards (I'm not sure what this is, but I saw it listed on another checklist)
Any site you have a payment method linked to
Any site you have a mailing address linked to

According to what I found in my research, you do not need to alert the three credit reporting agencies about your name change. When you change your name with your creditors, they will report the account to the agencies under your new name and they will be linked to your current credit history. Good thing if you have a good history, bad if you'd hoped for a fresh start.

With many of these changes, you can also have the opportunity to change the beneficiary. This is particularly relevant with wills, retirement accounts, bank accounts, and insurance policies. Perhaps that's also relevant to safe deposit boxes?

Name changes other people may need to make:
This is the really hard part: Getting other people to care enough to deal with bureaucracy to update your name in their records. I guess it probably works out fine in the end if you don't, but it would certainly make life easier to deal with this now, before things get bad. Some failures, such as not updating the car insurance, could come back to haunt you. (I don't know, but some of these companies can be sketchy like that.)

Insurance policies
Retirement accounts
Bank accounts with a beneficiary clause
Power of attorney
Living will/healthcare directives/healthcare proxy agents
Authorized user for credit cards (get a new copy of the card)
Authorized user for other accounts
Family plans:
Cell phone plans
Car insurance
Health insurance

After You're Done
After a few months, order your free annual credit reports (and some states get more than one!) to make sure no one is opening accounts under your old name. You'll always want to keep an eye out for that. Use Also check that any accounts you closed are marked as closed.


  1. I would add that if you DON'T have paper statements demonstrating proof of address (I have a hard time summoning up the appropriate documents because I've switched to paperless as the companies have encouraged me to do), SWITCH BACK AHEAD OF TIME.

    Also, I think teaching makes it relatively easy to change your name upon marriage, but that might be because it's a woman-centric profession? Of course I could also be very wrong and in for a world of hurt and just not know it yet...

  2. There goes my plan to change my name. I got heart palpitations just skimming your list, never mind reading and perusing it.

  3. My mother changed her legal first and middle names to her Hebrew names at the same time as changing her last name at marriage. Every scrap of paper she had for over 20 years, from insurance policies to bank accounts, credit cards to drivers license, was in her new legal name, ie Hebrew name. After 23 years living under those names, she applied for a passport. Actually, a passport renewal. Her previous passport had been granted so long prior to this that it was in her birth name. They would not accept her application, because the name did not match her birth certificate, and she did not have a court order for her new name. They did not accept the marriage licence name change, even though she was told at the time but it was legal to change her entire name on her marriage licence. They would not accept her birth certificate as sufficient evidence of her name and issue a passport in her birth name, because she needed some backup ID. She had to go to the DMV and get a driver's licence reissued in her birth name. So she got the passport. But then her drivers licence no longer marched her credit cards, checks, anything else in her wallet. It was a lengthy drama. My father on the other hand had no such problems, because he changed his name by deed poll ie court order. (Both are Baalei Teshuva, not converts.)

  4. I completely changed my first, middle, and last names when I transitioned, and it really wasn't difficult. New Birth Cert, passport, license- the works. It's not as hard as it sounds.