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Name change law is the branch of legislation that allows individuals to change their legal names. Almost all nations have established some form of name change law. In some jurisdictions, it is a simple process requiring little to no paperwork, while in others it is a complicated process that may require a judge’s approval. Most nations will easily allow a married woman to change her last name, the most common case of name change, but will have stricter requirements in other cases.
People have changed their legally given names for hundreds of years for a variety of reasons. Monarchs sometimes changed their names upon assuming the throne, as did monks and nuns on joining religious orders. Married women have been taking their husbands’ last names in European and American societies for centuries. In the 20th century, many new reasons for name changes arose, including changes in family status, religious conversion, or even professional requirements. Name change law has had to adapt to take these new cases into consideration.
In the United States, name change law varies by state and sometimes by local community. In general, individuals can change their names simply by adopting the new name in everyday usage. State and business organizations may require legal documents to recognize the new name. It is advised to change Social Security or driver’s license information first, as these are the most common documents used to establish identity. This common procedure is usually a simple process, although it will involve some paperwork.
Other nations have different requirements built into their name change law. In the United Kingdom, a document called a deed poll becomes legal proof of a person’s new name, but past documents such as birth certificates cannot be changed. Some countries require a legal proceeding, and a judge must accept the person’s reason for the name change. The difficulty of this process varies according to factors such as bureaucratic complexity and local tradition. Usually, married women taking on new names are exempt from this process.
Most jurisdictions include some restrictions in their name change law. For example, most do not allow name change for fraudulent purposes, such as avoiding debt or criminal prosecution. An individual cannot change a name to one belonging to someone else if that could lead to legal confusion or allow identity theft. Names that are deliberately offensive or confusing, such as containing numbers or obscure symbols, are also rarely approved. Conversely, most courts will allow a person to change a given name that regularly exposes him or her to confusion, ridicule, or harassment.
I seriously considered getting a legal name change after my divorce became final, because I wanted a completely new start in life. I was never really happy with the first name my parent's gave me (Irving), and my last name was always being ridiculed by others. I had to endure a lot of teasing when I was growing up. I thought getting my name changed legally would make me feel better.
I talked to someone at Social Security about a name change, and she gave me a name change checklist to fill out. She said I'd have to go to different places and request a name change form, since there really was no central database for that sort of
thing. I'd have to go to the post office, for instance, and convince them to forward "Irving's" mail to my new name and address. I'd also have to get it changed on my driver's license, and also change the name on my bank accounts. I decided after all that to just keep my original name and live with it.
I had a chance to change my name in high school and I took it. A teacher asked me if I preferred going by my first name or my middle name, and I told him my middle name. He put in the paperwork to change the school records, but I never applied for a legal name change through the courts. I thought as long as it was my middle name and my real last name, I wouldn't have to do anything legally.
I found out later that under our state's name change laws, I still had to use my original first name on most legal documents. Any name I used had to match the one on my Social Security card. Since both names did appear on that card, I could still use either one as informal personal identification. There are still some people who knew me as a child and call me by my original first name.
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