People legally change their first, middle, or last names for a variety of reasons: Major life changes—getting married, divorced, or undergoing a gender reassignment—might catalyze a name change, or people might just hate the name they were born with.
“The biggest thing to keep in mind about any name change is that it is a process, rather than a one-stop shop,” Anna Phipps, former VP of experience at HitchSwitch, a name change service geared toward newlyweds, told Mental Floss in 2016. Obtaining a legal document such as a marriage certificate, divorce decree, or court granted petition will allow you to change your name but won’t make your name change official, she explained. “You won’t be legally recognized by your new name until you’ve submitted applications with the Social Security Administration, DMV, etc.”
If you’re considering getting a legal name change, here are seven things you should know.
1. You can name yourself anything—with a few exceptions.
If you don’t like your birth name, you can legally change it to whatever you want … with a few exceptions. You can’t name yourself after a celebrity (because that could be viewed as intentionally misleading), a trademarked name, a numeral (like 4 or 8), a punctuation mark (like ? or !), or something offensive or obscene. You also can’t change your name to commit fraud, evade law enforcement, or avoid paying any debts you owe.
Jo-Anne Stayner of I’m a Mrs. Name Change Service recommends that people who are legally changing their name make sure they’re 100 percent certain of the spelling and format of their new name. “It might seem obvious, but we get several inquiries a year for people needing to make a legal name change because of a misspelling,” she told Mental Floss in 2016.
2. The simplest times to change your last name are during marriage and divorce.
In most states, people can legally change their last name to their new spouse’s surname, hyphenate their two surnames, or create a new amalgamation of their surnames (like when actors Alexa Vega and Carlos Pena got married in 2014, and changed both of their last names to PenaVega).
If you decide to change your last name when you get married, you don’t need a court order. Just write your new last name on your marriage license and show your marriage certificate (not license) to places such as the DMV, your bank, and Social Security Administration as proof of your new last name.
And if you get divorced and want to legally change your name back to your maiden name, you can usually get the judge to take care of that during the divorce proceedings. Your name change should appear on your decree of dissolution (a.k.a. divorce decree), then you can start using your maiden name again.
3. You don’t need to hire a lawyer …
Although it may be seem daunting to show up at court or fill out legal paperwork, you don’t need to hire a lawyer to change your name.
Filling out a petition for name change can be fairly straightforward. But if you do feel overwhelmed by navigating the name change process yourself, consider outside help. Companies such as LegalZoom offer packages that streamline it, giving you the paperwork you need to fill out for your state.
Services such as I’m a Mrs. and HitchSwitch can also simplify the name change process by putting all the forms and instructions you need in one place. “We save our members time by auto-populating forms, pre-drafting emails, and providing specific contact details and tips on organizations’ preferred method to submit name changes,” Stayner explained.
4. ... But be ready to pay a few hundred dollars.
In most states, you have to pay a fee (usually $150 to $200) to file your name change petition in court. It also costs a small amount of money to get forms notarized. And if you’re getting married, you may want to pay for additional certified copies of your marriage certificate to use as proof of your new last name.
5. Update everyone about your new name …
You’ll need to make government agencies, businesses, family, and friends aware of your new name. First, apprise the Social Security Administration of your new name, then notify the IRS and the DMV—you may need to get a new driver’s license. Don’t forget to tell banks, credit card companies, utility companies, and mortgage or loan companies about your new name, and make a list of any identification documents—like your passport—that you’ll need to update.
Other things you should do? Get new checks, notify the post office, and update your medical records and insurance. If you have legal documents like a will or trust, you’ll want to look into changing them as well.
6. … But don’t jump the gun.
Although it’s important to notify people of your new name, doing it too soon could create logistical problems. “Wait until you get your official paperwork (court papers, marriage certificate, divorce decree) in hand before starting to change your name broadly—you’ll save a lot of time this way,” Stayner said.
Waiting can also help you preserve your good credit—you don’t want to lose credit history that you’ve built under your old name. Additionally, it can take several weeks to notify the passport office of your new married name, so if you’re traveling internationally for your honeymoon, use your maiden name (to match the name on your passport) to book flights.
Finally, transgender people who are undergoing gender-affirming care should proceed with caution when changing their names with their health insurance companies to avoid confusion and ensure coverage.
7. State laws vary, so do your research.
Not all states require that you file your name change in court, but some states do. In California, for example, you can technically choose a new name and start using it consistently under the state’s usage method. But realistically, you might still need a court order to show as proof of your name change to banks, the SSA, or the DMV because these organizations are wary of identity theft. Some states also require that you advertise your new name by publishing it in a newspaper. No matter where you live, do your research (your state government’s website is a good place to start) to make sure you’re following your state’s protocol.
A version of this story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.