Whatever your reasons for changing your last name, state laws offer several ways for you to do it. Often people want to change their names because of marriage or divorce, and states offer relatively simple name change procedures as part of these legal events. Otherwise, going to court specifically for a legal name change may be a good option, but you can change your name without a separate court process.
In most cases, you can change your last name when you get married simply by noting your new name on the marriage license. Some states, such as New York, restrict the name you choose, requiring it to be either your spouse’s last name or a hyphenated version of both your last name and your spouse’s. Once your marriage license is registered with state authorities after your marriage, you can begin using your new name immediately. Your marriage certificate provides proof of your legal name change, allowing you to get a new driver’s license, Social Security card, passport and other identification.
Changing your name at the time of your divorce typically does not require a separate court order as long as you simply want to resume using the name you used prior to the marriage. While this type of name change does involve a court order, it is not a separate process and does not require additional court hearings or paperwork. But some states, like California, do not allow you to use the divorce process to change your name to anything other than what it was immediately before you got married. To change your name during the divorce process, you must include your request for a name change in the divorce petition; the court will include the legal name change order in your divorce decree.
Change by Use
Many states allow residents to change their name by common law, also called change by usage. Under this method, you simply stop using your previous name and begin using a new name. You must use the new name consistently and for all purposes -- you cannot use both your previous name and the new name at the same time. Your ability to use this name change method depends on your state’s laws. Some states do not allow a change by usage if you have a criminal record or if you want to change your name for a fraudulent reason such as avoiding creditors.
While name change by usage does not typically require any paperwork, it may be wise to create an affidavit of name change -- a notarized written statement explaining your name change, so you have documentation to prove you legally changed your name. Many government agencies may not recognize your name change under the usage method, and changing your name with some offices may require additional documentation if you do not have a court order or marriage certificate proving the change. For example, the U.S. State Department allows you to change your name on your passport to your assumed name but only if you can provide at least three public records that show your date, place of birth and exclusive use of your assumed name for at least five years.