When a marriage is over, many spouses want to shed every reminder of the union. One step toward starting over is reverting to the surname you used before you got married. It's a relatively simple process in New Jersey, and the state imposes no deadline for doing so, but the longer you wait, the more complicated the procedure can become.
The Divorce Process
As part of the divorce process in New Jersey, you have the right to resume use of any name you used before you married, or even another surname entirely. If you change your name at this point, there are typically no extra costs or fees – it's part of your divorce action. When you or your attorney draft your complaint for divorce, you can include the request as part of your "prayers for relief" – what you're asking the court to award you as part of the divorce. If you divorce by property settlement agreement, you can include provisions for your name change in this document as well. In either case, when your divorce is final, your judgment will include language that allows you to begin using your new name. You or your attorney can also submit to the court an additional, separate name change order for the judge's signature. This avoids having to provide your entire divorce judgment, which might include personal information you don't want to share, to the Department of Motor Vehicles or other legal entities so you can change your name on their records.
Granting Your Request
New Jersey judges almost invariably grant name change requests, but this isn't to say they do so without question. Typically, the judge will interview you briefly at your final hearing, either as part of your divorce trial or when approving your property settlement agreement. By law, the judge must establish that you're not simultaneously involved in a bankruptcy proceeding. If you are, you must wait and change your name later after you receive your bankruptcy discharge. The judge will want to make sure you're not requesting the change in order to elude creditors or avoid paying debts, or to dodge criminal prosecution. You must let the judge know if you've ever been convicted of a crime and, if so, the details of the charges and the outcome of the case.
If you’re unsure about changing your name at the time of your divorce, or if you simply overlook this fine point when making other major decisions, you can go back to family court later and make the request in a separate, post-judgment proceeding. There's no statute of limitations for this type of proceeding. You need only file a motion with the court, explaining in an affidavit why you'd like to change your name. There will typically be a short hearing where the judge asks you the same questions he would have asked if you had requested the change at the time of your divorce. A post-judgment motion is a more expensive option because it's a separate proceeding from your divorce, involving its own court filing fees and maybe even attorney fees if you decide you want to use a lawyer.
Section 2A:52-1 of the New Jersey statutes allows you to change your name by beginning to use a new one; technically, no court proceeding is required. As a practical matter, however, this is problematic because it doesn't provide you with a court order you can present to government entities to make the change official. You can also file a name change request with civil court – not family court – at any time, even while your divorce is still pending, but this option also has some drawbacks. It typically costs considerably more and such lawsuits are usually more complicated.