is a basic legal
act that is recognized in practically all legal systems to allow an individual the opportunity to adopt a name
other than the name given at birth
, or adoption
can regulate name changes in the United States
; still, they cannot altogether forbid common law name changes. Several specific federal
court rulings have set precedents regarding both court decreed name changes and common law name changes (changing your name "at will").
- One may be employed, do business, and enter into other contracts, and sue and be sued under any name they choose at will (Lindon v. First National Bank 10 F. 894, Coppage v. Kansas 236 U.S. 1, In re McUlta 189 F. 250).
- Such a change carries the exact same legal weight as a court decreed name change as long as it is not done with fraudulent intent (In re McUlta 189 F. 250, Christianson v. King County 196 F. 791, United States v. McKay 2 F.2d 257).
- This at will right is guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution, specifically the Fourteenth Amendment (Jech v. Burch 466 F.Supp. 714).
The federal courts have overwhelmingly ruled that changing one's name at will, by common law, is clearly one's constitutional right. Nonetheless, one may still choose to have a court issued name change.
Usually a person can adopt any name desired for any reason; most states allow one to legally change their name by usage only. There are differences in specific requirements among U.S. states, and usually a court order is the most efficient way to change names (which would be applied for in a state court). It is necessary to plead that the name change is not for a fraudulent or other illegal purpose (such as evading a lien or debt, or for defaming someone).
The applicant may be required to give a somewhat reasonable explanation for wanting to change his/her name. A fee is generally payable, and the applicant may be required to post legal notices in newspapers to announce the name change. Generally the judge has judicial discretion to grant or deny a change of name, especially if the name change is for "frivolous" or "immoral" purposes, such as changing one's name to "God," "Superman," "Copyright," or "Delicious."
In 2004, a Missouri man did succeed in changing his name to "They." The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a name change to "1069" could be denied, but that "Ten Sixty-Nine" was acceptable (Application of Dengler, 1979), and the North Dakota Supreme Court denied the same request several years before (Petition of Dengler, 1976). Name Change FAQ
In nearly all states one cannot choose the name of a notable person with the intent to mislead, a name that is intentionally confusing, a racial slur, threats, obscenities, or a name that incites violence.
Under the federal immigration and nationality law, when aliens apply for naturalization, they have the option of asking for their names to be changed upon the grant of citizenship with no additional fees. This allows them the opportunity to adopt a more Americanized name. In the 2005 version of Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, Part 1 (D) asks whether the person applying for naturalization would like to legally change his or her name. During the naturalization interview, a petition for name change is prepared to be forwarded to a federal court. The applicant certifies that he or she is not seeking a change of name for any unlawful purpose such as the avoidance of debt or evasion of law enforcement. Such a name change becomes final once a federal court naturalizes an applicant.
In some states, individuals are often allowed to return to the use of any prior surname (e.g., maiden name upon divorce). Some states, such as New York, also allow married couples to adopt any new surname upon marriage, which may be a hyphenated form of the bride's and groom's names, a combination of parts of their family names, or any new family name they can agree upon adopting as the married name.
In order to maintain one's identity, it is desirable to obtain a formal order so there is continuity of personal records.
Informal methods of legal name change
The "open and notorious" use of a name is often sufficient to allow one to use an assumed name
. In some jurisdictions, individuals may register the use of a trade name that is distinct from their legal name and is registered with the county clerk, secretary of state
, or other similar government authority. Individuals who wish to publish materials and not have the publication associated with them, may publish under a pseudonym
; such a right is protected in the United States of America
under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution
The usage method of name change
the usage method
(changing it at will under common law) is sufficient to change one's name. Although it is federal law to allow this, it is not followed in all states. Regulations vary from state to state, but typically in states which allow this method, any person or agency with whom one does business must be notified of the new name, and the new name must be used exclusively
, by the person changing their name, once the name is changed. This type of name change is sometimes considered as an interim solution, prior to having the name 'ratified' by court proceedings. Any fraudulent usage or intent, such as changing one's name to the same name as another person's name, may invalidate this type of name change.
Specifically in California, Code of Civil Procedure § 1279.5 and Family Code § 2082 regulate common law and court decreed name changes. Code of Civil Procedure § 1279.5 (a) reads, “Except as provided in subdivision (b), (c), (d), or (e), nothing in this title shall be construed to abrogate the common law right of any person to change his or her name.” Subdivisions b through e preclude one from changing their name by common law if they are in state prison, on probation, on parole, or been a convicted sex offender. If a person is not in any of these categories, then a common law name change is allowed. Family Code § 2082 also specifically states, “Nothing in this code shall be construed to abrogate the common law right of any person to change one's name.”
Officially registering a name change
A legal name change is merely the first step in the name-change process. One must officially register their new name with the appropriate authorities whether the change was made as a result of a court order, marriage, divorce, adoption, or any of the other methods described above. The process includes notifying various government agencies each of which may require a specific form, legal proof of the name change, and may or may not charge a fee. Important government agencies to be notified include the social security office
, Passport Office, Post Office
, and one's local department of motor vehicles. Additionally the new name must be registered with other institutions such as one’s employer, bank, doctor, mortgage, insurance and credit card companies. Online services are available to assist in this process either through direct legal assistance or automated form processing.
Although state requirements differ, it is generally recommended to first register a new name with the social security office
as some states’ motor-vehicle departments require an updated social security card to make the change—Arizona
is one of these states.
Time can be of the essence. Most states require name changes to be registered with their department of motor vehicles within a certain time frame. For example, South Carolina, Washington State, and Wyoming require a name change be registered with their office in a mere ten days. States like Illinois and Texas require it be registered within 30 days, while North Carolina provides its residents up to 60 days. New York State requires visiting a local motor vehicle office to change one's name on all records and documents, but without definite deadline to do so. The fees for registering a new name vary from state to state. The forms, along with the state-specific requirements, can generally be obtained for free.
In the United Kingdom citizens and residents have the freedom to change their names with relative ease.
England and Wales
In theory anyone who is at least 16 years of age and resident in the United Kingdom can call themselves whatever they wish. However, over the past hundred years or so, formal procedures have evolved which are recognised by all record holders, such as government departments, companies and organisations. These procedures, which require the production of “documentary evidence” of a change of name, enable a citizen to legally change their name on their passport, driving licence, tax and National Insurance records, bank and credit cards, etc. Documents such as birth, marriage and educational certificates cannot be changed because these documents are “matter of fact” which means that they were correct at the time they were issued.
Documentary evidence of a change of name can be in a number of forms, such as a marriage certificate, Statutory Declaration or deed of change of name. Deeds of change of name are by far the most commonly used method of providing evidence of a change of name other than changing a woman’s surname after marriage. A deed poll is a legal document which binds a single person to a particular course of action (in this case, changing one's name for all purposes). The term ‘Deed’ is common to signed, written agreements that have been shown to all concerned parties. Strictly speaking, it is not a contract because it binds only one party and expresses an intention instead of a promise. ‘Poll’ is an old legal term referring to official documents that had cut edges (were polled) so that they were straight.
It should be noted that those whose births are registered in Scotland or have been legally adopted in Scotland need only inform people and organisations (e.g., bank, general practitioner) of their new name (deed polls do not exist under Scots law). The person can apply to the Registrar General for Scotland to have their birth certificate amended to show the new name and have the respective register updated. This is in addition to changes of surname by marriage.
Scots law requires only that no one can change his or her name with the intent to defraud. The Registrar requires proof that someone has been living using their new name before an updated birth certificate can be issued. The easiest way to prove that is to have a passport or driving licence issued in the new name.
Other common law
From September 1995, New Zealanders
were no longer able to change their name by deed poll
. From that date, they were required to fill out a statutory declaration and if approved, the new name would be registered with the Births, Deaths and Marriages
section of the Department of Internal Affairs (Identity Services).
Name changes in South Africa
are regulated by the Births and Deaths Registration Act (Act 51 of 1992, as amended). The personal information of all citizens and permanent residents is recorded on the Population Register, so any name changes must be registered.
A person can change their forenames by submitting a form to the Department of Home Affairs. An individual's surname, or that of a family, may be changed by applying to the Department and providing a "good and sufficient reason" for the change.
A married woman can change her surname to that of her husband or join her maiden name with her husband's surname, and a divorced woman may return to her previous surname, without applying or paying a fee; but she must notify the department so that the details in the Population Register can be changed. (It is possible that, if challenged, these provisions might be held to be unconstitutional because they apply only to women.)
The surnames of minor children can also be changed under various circumstances involving the marriage, divorce or death of a parent, children born out of wedlock, and guardianship.
In general, unlike in common law
countries, names cannot be changed at will in civil law
jurisdictions. Usually, a name change requires government approval and is only rarely granted. The reason given for this system is usually the public interest in the unique identifiability of a person, e.g., in governmental registers, although with the advent of personal identification numbers
, that rationale may be in need of reconsideration.
Although as in other jurisdictions a citizen of Quebec
may informally use whatever name he or she wants, procedures for formal name change are very strict as Quebec operates under a civil law
system. The decision must be authorized by the Director of Civil Status, and requires a valid reason for changing the name, including long-term use of the new name (in the Montreuil case cited below, the Quebec appeals court has considered five years' use to be a sufficient reason), difficulty of use due to spelling or pronunciation, or bearing a name that another person has made infamous.
Only a judge may authorize a name change for a child for reasons of abandonment, deprivation of parental authority, or change in filiation such as adoption.
This has occasionally led to controversy. A lawyer named Micheline Montreuil, a non-operative male-to-female transgendered woman, had to undergo a lengthy process to have her name legally changed. Initially, the director of civil status refused to permit the change on the grounds that a male could not bear a female name. According to Quebec law, Montreuil could not change her record of sex because this requires proof of a completed sex reassignment surgery, which she has not had. On November 1, 1999, the provincial court of appeal ruled that nothing in the law prevented a person who was legally male from legally adopting a woman's name. (Montreuil was initially prevented from changing her name despite this ruling on the grounds that she had not established general use, as normally required for a name change; the Quebec appeals court finally authorized the change on November 7, 2002.)
The Director of Civil Status will amend a Quebec birth certificate if a name change certificate is issued by another province. Some people have used that loophole by moving to another province temporarily in order to get the legal documents.
, a name change requires the approval of the respective Cantonal
government, if there are important reasons (wichtige Gründe
/ justes motifs
) for the change, according to article 30 of the Swiss civil code
. According to the case law of the Swiss Federal Supreme Court
, such requests must be granted only if the petitioner shows that they suffer substantially from their present name, e.g., if it is the same as that of a notorious criminal.
In Belgian law, a name is in principle considered fixed for life, but under exceptional circumstances, a person may apply to the Ministry of Justice for a name change. This requires a Royal Decree (Arrêté Royal, Koninklijk Besluit) for last names, but only a Ministerial Decree for first names. The new name must not cause confusion or cause damage to the bearer or others. Examples of requests that are usually considered favorably:
- A person of non-European origin who wants to adopt a less exotic name to further his/her integration in Belgian society.
- A person stuck with a ridiculous last name that is causing him/her great embarrassment or emotional distress. Actual examples: Salami, Naaktgeboren ("born naked"), Clooten ("sods of earth" in Middle Dutch, but "testicles" in modern Dutch), ...
- (for minor children) following legal adoption or recognition of paternity
According to the Brazilian Civil Code and public registry act, the name given at birth is definitive and immutable. However there are some possibilities that may allow a name change:
- If an obvious writing error is made while registering the name of the child.
- In the first year after the age of majority is reached, the person can request to change his first name. Modification of surnames is not allowed in this case.
- If a person's name exposes him to the ridicule and goes against the person's well being in everyday life.
- In case a person is recognized publicly by another name, it can request a name change or addition, by bringing three testimonials who can prove the allegation.
- The case of sex change is also foreseen, the recent jurisprudence has allowed name modifications in most of these cases
In Republic of China
, a name change is subject to very strict conditions under the Name Act (姓名條例) and the Enforcement Regulations of the Name Act
(姓名條例施行細則). A common reason to change one's given name is when one's name is the same as a wanted criminal. ex: 陳進興, a common name but also the name of a convicted murderer who was executed in Taiwan
RA 9048 amends Articles 376 and 412 of the Civil Code of the Philippines
, which prohibit the change of name or surname of a person, or any correction or change of entry in a civil register without a judicial order. Administrative Order No. 1 Series of 2001, implemented the law.
It authorizes the city or municipal civil registrar or the consul general to correct a clerical or typographical error in an entry and/or change the first name or nickname in the civil register without need of a judicial order.
Name and gender change
In case of controversial and substantial changes, Philippines jurisprudence
requires full-blown court lawsuit
, that must include the local civil registrar in the petition, since RA 9048 and Rule 108 (Cancellation or correction of entries in the Civil Registry)
of the Rules of Court, do not allow the change of gender in a birth certificate. The first and only landmark case in the Philippines on name and gender legal change is the Jeff case.
The Supreme Court of the Philippines Justice Leonardo Quisumbing on September 12, 2008, allowed Jennifer Cagandahan, 27, to change both his birth certificate, gender and name from Jennifer to Jeff, to male: “We respect respondent’s congenital condition and his mature decision to be a male. Life is already difficult for the ordinary person. We cannot but respect how respondent deals with his unordinary state and thus help make his life easier, considering the unique circumstances in this case. In the absence of a law on the matter, the court will not dictate on respondent concerning a matter so innately private as one’s sexuality and lifestyle preferences, much less on whether or not to undergo medical treatment to reverse the male tendency due to rare medical condition, congenital adrenal hyperplasia. In the absence of evidence that respondent is an ‘incompetent’ and in the absence of evidence to show that classifying respondent as a male will harm other members of society ... the court affirms as valid and justified the respondent’s position and his personal judgment of being a male." Court records showed that - at 6, he had small ovaries; at 13, his ovarian structure was minimized and he had no breasts and did not menstruate. The psychiatrist testified that "he has both male and female sex organs, but was genetically female, and that since his body secreted male hormones, his female organs did not develop normally." The Philippines National Institutes of Health said "people with congenital adrenal hyperplasia lack an enzyme needed by the adrenal gland to make the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. Without these hormones, the body produces more androgen, a type of male sex hormone. This causes male characteristics to appear early in males or inappropriately in the case of females. About 1 in 10,000 to 18,000 children are born with congenital adrenal hyperplasia.
Name change on religious conversion
Adherents of various religions change their name upon conversion or confirmation. The name adopted may not have any legal status but will represent their adopted religious beliefs.
- Jewish people in the Diaspora sometimes give their children two names: a secular name for everyday use and a Hebrew name for religious purposes. Converts to Judaism choose a Hebrew name. Full Jewish names include a patronym: converts take the patronym "ben/bat Avraham Avinu" (son/daughter of Our Father Abraham) as converts are held to be spiritual descendants of Abraham, the first Jew.
- Converts to Islamic faith may choose a new name. Boxer Cassius Clay's adoption of the name Muhammad Ali is a well-known example, as is Malcolm Little's adoption of the name Malcolm X and later El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz; on the other hand, a convert may choose to keep his or her name, as did Dave Chappelle. Changing of religion and name is illegal in Islamic law, unless it is towards Islam. This causes difficulties for converts from Islam.
- Former basketball star Lew Alcindor would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after converting to Islam.
- Those who embrace the Hindu faith may choose a name. Gaudiya Vaishnavas, most notably ISKCON devotees, are given a spiritual name by their guru upon diksha (initiation). This name is a Vaishnava name (a name relating to Lord Krishna/Vishnu or a Gaudiya Vaishnava saint), and is followed by "Dasa" for men and "Dasi" for women (both terms mean "servant"). Such a name generally begins with the same letter as their given name, but not always.
- Individuals who attend a ceremony to officially become Buddhists are usually given a new "Dharma name", which marks their "taking refuge."
- Those in the Sikh faith adopt a new last name upon baptism into the Khalsa. Men adopt the last name Singh, while women adopt the last name Kaur.
- The Sikhs adopted the name Singh in 1699 during the Birth of the Khalsa.