“It ain’t what they call you,” said W.C. Fields. “It’s what you answer to.” The hard-drinking American comedian knew what he was talking about. Throughout his life, Fields would answer to many names, including Otis Criblecoblis, Mahatma Kane Jeeves, and Uncle Claude.
Many of us in the LGBTQ community are also fond of “stage names,” which our friends may use out of affection or sheer playfulness! A legal name, on the other hand, is an important part of our identity, and taking on a new name is usually done only for serious reasons. Often, these reasons include major life events.
For example, a recently married couple may want to change their last names to reflect their new union. Without traditional rules of etiquette to follow, they may hyphenate their surnames, one partner may take the other’s name, or each could adopt the other’s last name as his middle name. When a marriage ends, at least one of the former spouses may want to revert to his previous name.
Same-sex couples who adopt a child may want to change the child’s last name to help him identify as a member of the family. For a very young child, the couple may choose to change the entire name, perhaps honoring the birthmother by incorporating part of her name in some way.
A legal name is an important part of our identity, and taking on a new name is usually done only for serious reasons.
Someone who is transgender or in transition will likely want a new name that reflects their new gender, or that is agreeably gender-neutral. In this case, the individual will want to have the gender marker on their birth certificate changed as well. The person can then be issued a new birth certificate—not an amended one—that shows the new name and the changed gender. A legal name change can occur at any time, regardless of the stage of the person’s transition.
So when the time comes, what’s the best way to change your legal name? The process can start with a call to a lawyer, who will prepare the necessary documents. These include a petition to your county’s Circuit Court requesting the change. The petition will be submitted with proof of your current name, such as copies of your birth certificate and passport, as well as any documents related to the reason behind the change, such as a marriage license.
Notice of the petition is published in a local newspaper, giving the public an opportunity to raise any objections to the change. This rarely happens, but if it does—or if the court has any questions about your petition—the judge may schedule a hearing. Your attorney can attend the hearing with you to ensure that your interests are represented fairly. If all goes well, the judge will eventually sign a decree granting the request to make your name change official.
Once the change is final, you should notify Social Security and the Motor Vehicles Administration of your new name. Having a driver’s license and Social Security card bearing your new name will make it easier for you to have other agencies and businesses update their records as well.
Dale Carnegie once said, “A person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” With the help of a lawyer and the courts, you can change your name to align with your gender, your marital status, or simply your sense of who you are. And nothing could be sweeter or more important than that.
Lee Carpenter is an Estates & Trusts attorney at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. This article is intended to provide general information about legal topics and should not be construed as legal advice. For qualified legal counsel contact Lee Carpenter at Lee.Carpenter@saul.com or 410.332.8626.