WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CHANGING YOUR NAME

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The media can’t seem to stop generating stories about how Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner.  I watched Diane Sawyer’s interview with Jenner about the physical and emotional process.  How about the legal process?  Has "Bruce Jenner" legally become "Caitlyn Jenner?"   I don’t know.  I do know that the process of changing your name is not difficult, but like any legal process, it’s not simple.

Legally changing your name requires filing documents with the court.  You must give notice to anyone who may be affected.  Some states require a hearing, and the process concludes when the judge signs the order. Like many legal proceedings, a petition for name change can be filed pro se, without an attorney.  However, it may be cost effective to hire an attorney.  The attorney can identify potential problems and help you through the process.

Why would anyone want to change his or her name?

Name changes are usually associated with a big life change. When you ask for a name change, you normally need to tell the judge why you want to change your name.

  • Gender change.  Ms. Jenner just completed a gender transformation and has adopted a new first name.
  • Divorce.  Many women change their surname when they are divorced to their maiden or former name.  Most states allow for this as a part of the divorce proceeding.  When a woman does not change her name at the time of divorce, she may still petition the court at a future date to change her name.
  • Religious reasons.  Some people change their name when they experience a substantial religious change and want for their new name to reflect that change.  For example, some people upon converting to Islam want to change their name. 
  • Adoption.  When a child is adopted, the child’s surname is often changed.  It is often very difficult to change a child's name in the absence of an adoption.  
  • Independence. Some people change their name when they become adults. They decide to legally use the name they have informally used for years. This may happen when a child uses a stepparent’s name.  Others want to change to remove a name of a parent who has not been involved in their life or has caused them suffering.

These are just a few of the reasons that courts may grant an order allowing a person to change their name.

Are there reasons a person cannot change their name through the courts?

  • Obscuring Identity.  The courts will not allow you to change your name if it is for any reason related to hiding or obscuring your identity.   
  • Debt liability.  You cannot change your name to escape debt liability or try to create a new credit record for yourself.  You will normally have to tell your creditors when you change your name.
  • Criminal convictions.  If you were convicted of a crime, it can be more difficult to change your name.  You cannot change your name to escape criminal liability.  In West Virginia, it is a misdemeanor to even attempt to change your name if you are required to be registered as a sex offender, if you are incarcerated or when you are convicted of certain felonies. 

What is the process for legally changing a name?

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  • Filing the petition and providing notice.  The process begins when you file a petition.  The judge evaluates it and when it complies with the statute will set a hearing to review it.  You must then give legal notice to third parties, including creditors.  Notice must also be published in the newspaper.  The specific rules about publication vary from state to state. For example, in the District of Columbia, notice of the filing of the application must be published once a week for three consecutive weeks.
  • Court review.  After the notice requirements are met, the court reviews the petition.  Some jurisdictions hold a short hearing. Once the judge decides the statutory mandates are met, he or she will sign and enter the court order providing for the change of name.

What happens after the court enters the order?

  • Get certified copies.  After the order allowing the name change is entered, you will want to get many certified copies of the order and change you identification and financial documents.
  • Get a new passport.  You may begin by getting a new passport and using that document for other changes.  Here is how to get a new passport.  
  • Get other new documents.  Once you have a passport, it may be easy to get the other changes.    

Should I hire a lawyer?  What if I can’t afford one?

It’s usually best to hire a lawyer.  If you can’t afford one, you can proceed without a lawyer. The following links may help you navigate the system in the District of Columbia or West Virginia.  Contact the state bar in your state for further information.

  • DC:  For information about changing your name in the District of Columbia, visit the D.C. Court’s website.   Additional forms are on-line, but may not be properly updated.  
  • WV:  In West Virginia, information and forms are available online through the Legal Aid website.  

 Our office has worked with many clients who have legally changed their name.  Please contact me if you would like to talk about whether this option may work for you.