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A legal name is the formal name that a person is recognized by in the eye of the law. In the United States and other Western countries, a legal name consists of a given name, an optional middle name, the legal surname or family name and for males, any suffix, such as Jr. or III. The use of a legal name is often required for any number of reasons, ranging from security protocols and background checks to simply ensuring proper identity of the person in question.
Usually, a full legal name is given to a person at birth and listed on that person's birth certificate, though in numerous instances, a person does not have a legally recognized given name until many months or years following his or her birth. Though legal names are important for establishing a formal and permanent identity, they are actually quite easy to change for reasons of mistaken identity or professional expediency. For women in Western countries, it is customary to change one's family name at the time of marriage.
The concept of a legal name goes back centuries, but it was not until the Middle Ages in England that the idea was established as a part of the common law. Under the English legal system, legal names were formal yet malleable, as it was customary for people of all classes to adopt legal "given" names of their own choosing.
In other countries, the legal name concept is a part of contemporary law, although many aspects of giving a legal name vary from country to country and from culture to culture. In China, for example, while the elements of a legal name are similar to those of Western countries, the order of the names is reversed. The family name is the first name while the given name is the last name. In some African nations, the concept of family name does not exist at all, instead people are only given a name upon reaching adulthood.
A legal name is not to be confused with the concept of a Christian name, which is a name, usually of biblical origin, that is given to an infant or child at baptism. Even though the idea of both the Christian name and the legal name spring from the same English tradition, the two concepts are no longer one and the same. One of the central reasons for the difference is the fact that a given name can be changed by law, while a Christian name, generally, cannot.
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