Exactly how to legally change your name
Whether you're getting married, divorced, or coming out as transgender.
The process may seem like it involves stacks of confusing paperwork and a dozen trips to different government agencies, but according to family attorney Caressa Lanier, changing your name really isn’t as difficult as it seems. “It’s pretty straightforward as long as you have a legitimate reason for changing your name,” she says.
If you’ve decided the choice to change is right for you, follow these steps.
To legally change your name, the first step is to tell Social Security so that they can change the name associated with your Social Security number. In turn, you’ll get an updated card. This process is free, and once the agency processes the request, they’ll send you a new card with your new name within about 14 business days.
You’ll need to complete this application, provide proof of your current name and the name you’re changing it to, and take or mail those materials to your local Social Security office.
For proof, you’ll need an official document that proves your identity, supports the requested change, and establishes the reason for that change. If you’re changing your name to your partner’s after you got married, for example, send your marriage certificate. If you’re changing it post-divorce, send your divorce decree. Lanier advises her clients to make sure that a name change is listed in the final judgment of a divorce, even if they’re unsure about changing their name. Doing so won’t make the change official, so you can always decide not to complete the process with Social Security. “It will be more time-consuming and costly to file a petition later on, and come back to change it after the final judgement has been entered,” she says. Don’t know where you put those documents? The clerk of court in the county where the marriage or divorce was filed will be able to give you a certified copy.
If your name change is not because of marriage or divorce, you’ll need to complete an extra step before Social Security will update your name: getting a court order. Lanier says you won’t need a lawyer to help you do this—you’ll just need to go to your local courthouse, or visit its website, and file a petition for a court-ordered name change. They may request your fingerprints to verify that you aren’t changing your name because of previous crimes associated with it or for credit purposes, or require you to print notice of your new name in a newspaper, depending on the state's laws. The court will most likely grant your request and give you a court order for a name change, as long as you can show that the reason is not to deceive, Lanier says.
If you are transgender, you may also want to change your sex on your social security record (while your card doesn't state your sex, it is still recorded and is sometimes used by third parties to confirm identity). You can do this at the same time that you change your name, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. You will have to submit a signed letter from a physician confirming you have had appropriate treatment for gender transition. (There is no specific legal definition of "appropriate treatment"—per the National Center for Transgender Equality, the term captures with variety of treatment options that are available. Meaning you don't have to have gender-confirmation surgery in order to change your gender on your social security card.)
While this step is the most complicated, it’s also the most important. If you don’t notify Social Security of your name change and get an updated card, your wages may be posted incorrectly to your Social Security record. That could lower the amount of your future Social Security benefits. Be sure to keep your employer in the loop with your legal name change, too.
Once you have your new Social Security card with your new legal name on it, you can start the process of updating your driver’s license or ID card. Make sure to do step one before step two—because of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s REAL ID Act, most states require that the name assigned to the Social Security number matches the name on the driver’s license or ID card.
Exactly what proof you’ll need to bring to your nearest DMV varies from state to state, but to cover all of your bases, you’ll want to have a primary identification (like your birth certificate), proof of Social Security (like your updated Social Security card), and a few documents that prove your residential address. In the case of a gender change, you may also have to bring a signed physician's note as you did with your Social Security change depending on your state's laws.
Be sure to bring your marriage certificate, divorce decree, or court order for your name change with you as well. In many states, you can get your new driver’s license or ID card on the same day that you bring in the required materials.
If you’re planning to travel outside of the United States, you’ll want to make sure the name on your passport matches your new legal name. To do so, fill out this form if your first passport was issued less than a year ago, and this form if it has been more than a year. Send the completed form, your valid passport, a color passport photo, the required fees, and your name-change document (which could be your marriage certificate, divorce decree, or court order) to a National Passport Processing Center. It will take four to six weeks to receive your updated passport, or two to three weeks if you expedite it.
For transgender folks: If you want to change your gender on your passport in addition to your name, you will have to submit a physician's note with your application unless your Social Security card and driver's liscence (or whatever other forms of ID you have) all reflect the correct gender. If only a few are updated, you will need that note, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Completing the final step is all up to you. Don’t forget to make sure any professional licenses have your new legal name on them, and tell your bank about your new legal name to update it on your accounts. You can easily change your business cards, LinkedIn profile, and Facebook page, too (in case you haven't already!).
If you are thinking about changing your name, remember that the choice is a personal one. You are the only one who can decide what name is right for you, and if you’re ready to make your chosen name official, don’t let these simple steps stand in your way.
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