Legal Name Change

A person can adopt a new name if they wish to do so, yet a legal name change must be done according to specific laws, which vary by state. While many states allow an individual to change his or her name simply by using it, banking, credit, and governmental institutions are likely to require proof, in the form of a court order, that the change has been legally made. A person can change their name for any reason at all, though the most common reasons for such a change include marriage and divorce. To explore this concept, consider the following legal name change definition.

Definition of Legal Name Change


  1. The formal changing of an individual’s name, by court order, from the name stated on his or her birth certificate, to another name of his or her choosing.

How to Change Your Name

The first step for an individual to change his name, after choosing the new name by which he wishes to be called, is to begin using it. Requesting that friends and family only refer to him by the new name, introducing himself using the new name, and filling out applications and forms using the new name, are all positive steps to accomplishing the change. While this may be sufficient in the eyes of the law in most states, many institutions require proof that an individual’s name has been changed legally, through a court of law.

To begin the legal name change process, individuals may find the necessary forms available through their state court’s website. These forms usually consist of a Petition for Change of Name, and/or an Order to Show Cause for Change of Name. In most jurisdictions, these documents are forwarded to a judge who approves or denies the name change. There is not usually a court hearing in the legal name change process, unless the name change is denied, in which case, the individual may wish to request a hearing to appeal the decision. Once a name change has been approved by a judge, the individual will receive a Decree Changing Name, or Order Approving Name Change, that may be shown to banking and governmental institutions as proof a legal name change has been made.

State Laws and the Legal Name Change  Process

Once an individual has obtained a legal name change through the court, most states require the individual to register, or otherwise make official the new name without a specified period of time. For example, the individual must update the name on his driver’s license or state issued ID, as well as with the Social Security Division, and other agencies. Some states also require the individual to post the name change in a local newspaper for a certain period of time. The time period in which this must be accomplished ranges anywhere from 10 days to two months, depending on the jurisdiction.

Legal Name Change After Marriage

A legal name change after marriage is, perhaps, the most common reason for changing a name. An individual can choose to take on his or her spouse’s last name when they marry, with no other legal action necessary. However, a legal name change after marriage entails a tedious list of steps, and agencies to notify. One rule of thumb is to notify anyone, or any agency, that would be notified of an address change, of the change in name. Many of these will require some type of proof of the change.

  1. Obtain a certified copy of the marriage certificate.
  2. Go to the Social Security Administration, armed with the marriage certificate, an original birth certificate, and the old social security card, to request a name change. If the individual has been married before, proof of that marriage and divorce or death is required to complete the chain of names.
  3. Take the new social security card and original birth certificate to the DMV to obtain a new driver’s license or state ID card.
  4. Use the new social security card and new driver’s license to make changes to bank accounts, credit accounts, school records, and other accounts. Some of these may also require a certified copy of the marriage certificate.

Social Security Name Change

Whether an individual obtains a legal name change through the court, or has changed his or her name by marriage, obtaining a social security name change requires a personal visit to the Social Security Administration. Because social security cards are a vital and fundamental piece of identification for American citizens, the Social Security Administration is very strict about requiring certain specific proof of identity. Instructions and forms for a social security name change can be found online at The name change form (SS-5) is also available at the Social Security Administration office.

DMV Name Change

In each state, a driver’s license or state-issued ID card is an official form of identification that must be kept up to date. While the time limit for advising the department of motor vehicles (“DMV”) of address and name changes varies by state, failure to do so may result in a fine, or even suspension of the driver’s license. To accomplish a DMV name change, an application for driver’s license or identification card must be filled out, and certain documents must be presented in person at the local DMV office. These include the individual’s current driver’s license or ID, his original birth certificate, or a certified copy, his updated social security card, and any documentation confirming the legal name change. Acceptable documents may include a certified copy of the individual’s marriage certificate, or the original court order of name change.

Passport Name Change

Passports are becoming a vital piece of identification for all Americans, making it important for anyone changing their name to update their passport as well. Like changing the name on a driver’s license and social security card, making a passport name change requires certain supporting documents. Passports are governed in the U.S. by the State Department, Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Form DS-5504 can be obtained online at:, and may be completed and submitted electronically, or the passport name change form may be printed and submitted by mail. To verify a name change, the State Department requires original or certified name change documents to be submitted with the application, and will not accept photocopies.

The passport name change application and supporting original documents may be mailed to:

National Passport Processing Center
Post Office Box 90107
Philadelphia, PA 19190-0107

When You Cannot Change Your Name

While theoretically, any person can change his name whenever he wants, there are, in fact, a few rules for choosing a new name, as well as reasons for which a name change cannot be made. For instance, a person cannot use symbols as all or part of his name, and the name cannot be a numeral, though a number can be spelled out, such as “seven,” rather than “7.” In addition, a name cannot be considered offensive or racially derogatory.

Situations in which a person cannot change his name may include:

  • Taking a new name to escape the responsibility of a debt
  • Changing a name for the purpose of committing a crime, or to escape criminal liability
  • Taking a new name in order to mislead another person or entity

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.