There are three ways for a citizen of the United States to change his or her name. The first is by getting married or divorced, though that applies only to surnames.
If a person wants a new first name, though, it gets a little more complicated. Most people believe that to get the government’s official stamp of approval on the change, one must go through the courts. This second method works, but it is expensive, time consuming, fraught with aggravation and difficulty, and, sometimes, should the court deny the request, all the effort goes to waste.
However, going through the courts is not the only way; you have the right to change your name entirely on your own, by usage. This little-known option is actually a Constitutional one, backed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
While the States cannot abridge that right, they do have the authority to regulate how it is invoked. Here’s what the New York State law says about non-judicial name changes:
New York State Domestic Relations Law, Section 15-1-b-1:
“Every person has the right to adopt any name by which he or she wishes to be known simply by using that name consistently and without intent to defraud.”
New York State Civil Rights Law, Article 6, Section 65-4:
“Nothing in this article shall be construed to abrogate or alter the common law right of every person, whether married or single, to retain his or her name or to assume a new one so long as the new name is used consistently and without intent to defraud.”
What that means is that any citizen of New York State can, at any time, simply change his or her name by act of will. There are a few stipulations: you can’t change your name for any fraud-related reason, and once you change your name, you can never go back to your old name.
Don’t expect a name change through usage to be easy; the right to do so predates social security cards and birth certificates. Though federal courts have consistently ruled that a name change by usage has exactly the same weight as a court-ordered one, in today’s documentation-based society, changing a name by the commonly known methods is complicated enough; add on to that the fact that almost no one knows that the change-by-usage option is out there, and you’ve got quite the challenge.
I changed my name using this aspect of law in 2003, choosing to do so largely because lawyers, Congressmen, Senators, and County Clerks all told me that it was impossible. Few of those I spoke to even knew of this obscure route’s existence; many doubted. Of those who were aware, every last one said that no one could pull off such a feat today: the documentation requirements for identification in the post 9/11 age could not possibly be circumvented solely by the invocation of an outdated “right”.
Yet, I did it.
It is a difficult course to navigate, and one that requires thorough planning and a healthy dose of luck. Maybe someday I’ll write an article detailing what I did and how. For now, it is enough to say that it is possible.
Despite the difficulty, changing your name this way isn’t nearly as frustrating as going through the courts, and no one, not a judge or anyone else, can lawfully deny the change.
If you’ve a mind to change your name, and, like me, you enjoy accomplishing the “impossible”, this method might just be for you. Of course, you can always go the court route. It’s costly and fraught with peril, but it is the “accepted” way.
Either way, it’s your name and your choice. And, now that you know all this, your name really can be your name. Enjoy!