A Rough Guide to Changing Your Legal Name
The experience of changing your legal name can feel daunting and overwhelming. Here is some info that might help make it easier.
Having gone through two legal name changes (first for my middle name, and more recently, for my first name), I thought it might be helpful to share some of the lessons learned.
There are certainly some universal experiences regardless of where you live, but where you live, where you were born, and what accounts you have may all differ from my own experience. This is specific to my experience as a US citizen born in Texas and living in California.
Buckle up, this is going to be a long post.
A Note on Organization
It’s not everyone's cup of tea, but I strongly recommend finding an organization system to keep track of everything needed for a name change. There are a lot of moving parts, dependencies, and especially in the COVID-19 era, longer wait times.
Personally, I used a spreadsheet, with each row representing an item that needed to be updated. I had columns for what the thing was, the status of it, dependencies (such as a copy of the court order, copy of new or old ID, etc.), cost (if any), notes, and date submitted. This has also let me set the entire process aside when needed and pick up where I left off. As of writing this, my list has over 60 line items with 76% of them complete.
That’s a lot to try to keep track of in your head.
The National Center for Transgender Equality has an excellent collection of information across the US in their ID Documents section. This is particularly useful for combined gender and name changes.
A court order is the first step, and consequently the most expensive.
- Some courts offer fee waivers based on your income. I paid the full fee in California which was $435.
- My name change was related to my gender identity, so I did not have to publish my name change in any newspapers.
- The California courts link to LawHelp Interactive, which assists you with filling out the legal paperwork needed. I used this for both of my name changes without issue! The hardest part was figuring out which court address I needed and where to file the paperwork. (If you’re in Alameda County like myself, you’ll need to use the René C. Davidson Alameda County Courthouse.)
- Because I’m non-binary and California does not require a legal gender change for California ID, I decided to skip a gender change through the court.
The first time I filed a name change, I had to file it in person at the Court Clerk’s office and show up to my assigned court date to receive the paperwork from the judge. The second time was in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, and so it was a little different. I had to drop off my paperwork and check in the court clerk’s dropbox at the courthouse and I never had to attend a court date.
Because I wasn’t sure what would happen or how I could check on the status, I looked up the Alameda Court public records online. Because I was looking up the case by my name initially, it cost me $1 for each look-up. Once my case was found in the system, I had the case number and could check that for free through the same portal. The court also did mail me a copy of my receipt and case number, though it took some time for me to get it.
All in all, even with the pandemic, the court order was approved within 6 weeks of filing, and I received my final signed court order in the mail a week or two later -- a pretty similar timeline to the pre-pandemic experience I’d had.
Of course, you actually need a couple of certified copies of the court order to update many things, and those must be requested and paid for. The court included a print out explaining how to request those certified copies by mail in the envelope with the signed court order. They were previously $25 per certified copy, but are now $40. I recommend getting three copies if you can afford it because some agencies will return it, and some will not.
It took around a week to receive the certified copies.
Social Security Administration
This is likely your first stop after the court order. A lot of state and federal systems will rely on SSA for updating your ID, taxes, medicaid/medicare, etc.
Thankfully, updating with SSA is pretty painless, though it certainly takes longer via the mail. For my first name change, I was able to go in the afternoon to my local SSA office without an appointment, and I was in and out within an hour. Within a week I received my new card in the mail.
Because of the pandemic, this process has to be done by mail currently.
- Follow the instructions on the SSA site for changing your name
- Send your old ID (yes, the actual ID card) with your paperwork and one of the certified copies of your court order - they’ll return your ID and the court order to you!
- There are no fees
- If you create an account with the SSA portal, you can see when your name gets updated by just logging in and seeing the name you’re greeted with (if you do this, make sure you create the account with your old name since that’s what they have on file for you)
- Updating SSA will also update the IRS! You will still have to update your name with any employers or organizations that help with your taxes (like TurboTax or H&R Block), however.
My documentation & ID was returned to me 2 weeks after I mailed it to them, and it took about 2 more weeks for my new SSA card to arrive in the mail.
This is really state specific. I was born in Texas, so I looked up how to correct/change information on a birth certificate with the Texas Department of State Health Services. I had to fill out some paperwork, include a photocopy of my old ID, include one of the certified court orders, and include a check for the correct fee amounts.
The first time I changed my name, it took around 8 months from when I first mailed off my request to the time I received my updated birth certificate in the mail.
Another plug for The National Center for Transgender Equality’s ID Documents page since every state varies.
For California, there are some interesting points/gotchas to consider:
- SSA having your new name is the single most important aspect here -- but, that being said, I do recommend bringing a copy of the certified court order and your new SSA card with you.
- If you have ever changed your name previously with the CA DMV, bring all of that related paperwork too. Yes, they will want to see it.
- If you want to change your gender along with your name, even if you didn’t with the court order, California has made that super easy. Just fill out the correct paperwork for it. The first time I changed my name, I self-identified as non-binary, so my CA driver’s license now has an X gender marker on it.
- Even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic, yes, you do have to go in person. You will also have to give them a new fingerprint, new signature, and take your mask off for a new photograph.
- They are not taking any appointments at this time, so any ID changes are walk-in.
- Definitely fill out your paperwork online in advance!
When I changed my middle name, I paid $28 for a new ID. I imagine it’s probably around the same still. Because of the pandemic and being required to take your mask off for a photo, I have decided to postpone my DMV trip until I’m vaccinated.
If you were already registered to vote, you will need to re-register with your new name. This can be done via the DMV or by visiting the California Secretary of State Voter Registration site.
If you’re worried about visiting the DMV during the pandemic, then a passport is your best option for obtaining updated ID right now. If you didn’t have a passport yet, you’ll need to go through the application process which I’m not covering in this post. If you just need to update your existing passport, however, that’s pretty straightforward:
- Follow the instructions on the US Department of State website on changing or correcting a passport
- You will need a recent photo that meets their standards -- it’s entirely possible to take this photo at home (you will need a white wall or smooth white sheet as a background) and then print it via an online service (I printed mine with Target, which offers a passport photo option so it’s printed at the correct size)
- As of writing this, processing times are 10-12 weeks, or 4-6 weeks if you pay for expedited service
My passport renewal/change took longer than expected due to 1) severe USPS delays even for priority mail, 2) December holidays.
If you own or lease a car, you’ll definitely want to make sure to update that information. This again depends on a couple of factors:
- If you outright own your vehicle, follow your local DMV process - you can likely make this update via mail, though if you’re already going to the DMV in person, you could take care of it then as well.
- If there is a lienholder on the car (for example, you have a loan or are leasing the car), you will likely need to fill out paperwork for the DMV and give it to the lienholder to submit to the DMV for you… at least this is the case in California.
I have a car loan and it took several messages back and forth with the bank for everyone to get on the same page. They thought I could submit everything myself, so I had to point them to California DMV’s documentation on the process.
Relatedly, you’ll want to make sure to update your car insurance and any other related records, such as with your service provider, dealership, etc.
Housing and Utilities
Depending on your housing situation, this may or may not be an issue you need to tackle. Maybe your family, roommates, or partners handle the legal aspects of your housing. Or maybe everything is in your legal name, so you have to update it all. If you do need to update anything in this category (mortgages, rental agreements, electricity, gas, water, phone bills, etc.) I recommend taking a similar approach as with other categories:
- List out everything in this category that you need to update
- Search to see if there is already info on how to update your legal name with each company
- Contact customer support for each company if necessary
It's also important to consider your own order of operations that makes the most sense. Maybe you're planning to move soon, and it's easier to just wait it out. Or maybe you want to get this done as soon as you have an updated ID. There is no right or wrong way to handle this. Putting it off indefinitely could cause problems at some point, but like all of these, take the time you need and do what makes sense in your own situation.
Banks tend to have a name change process in place, though depending on yours, you might have to dig around for what it is or even call them and ask.
With my credit unions, I had to submit paperwork and a photocopy or scanned copy of the court order to them. One I mailed the paperwork to, and the other accepted it via their secure email system/portal.
With my credit cards, I generally had to submit via mail a photocopy of the court order, photocopy of my ID, and their form filled out. Each one was slightly different, though, so I recommend searching their website or calling their support line.
I did not run into any problems with updating my banking info prior to updating my employer, and all of my updates were able to be made via mail, secure messaging systems, or over the phone.
They’re terrible, but living in the broken capitalist US we’re kind of stuck with them. Technically, updating your creditors (banks, credit cards, loans, etc.) should be enough to trigger the credit agencies to update their records, but realistically it’s not quite that smooth.
- TransUnion was the easiest - they updated my credit report and my account to use my new legal name just because my credit cards told them to!
- Experian had my new legal name, but had it listed under aliases, and continued to use my old legal name as my primary name. I had to call them to fix this, but it was relatively easy.
- Equifax was the most difficult because they didn’t have any record of my new name. In this case, I had to send them a photocopy of my new SSA card and a photocopy of my new ID (passport or driver’s license), along with a brief note that stated my new name and that I wanted them to update my records with my new name.
If you’re lucky, your employers either already allow your chosen name or have a process for updating your legal name! But more likely than not, they don’t, so there may be a bit of a learning curve that you have to walk them through.
- HR should only need your updated ID to update their systems, including payroll and insurance. Check with your HR department, but this has been my experience at two separate companies.
- IT systems can be convoluted, so this may be the more challenging area to update your name in - Slack has multiple places to update names, Google/GSuite can be notoriously difficult to ensure you get your name updated everywhere, and if you need to change your username and/or email, that might be a challenge. Be patient and hopefully the folks helping you aren’t jerks about it.
After HR and/or IT has confirmed your name is updated, be sure to check everything. For example, 401k or insurance providers may require additional steps that aren’t obvious.
For many people in the US, health insurance is tied to their employer. If that’s the situation you’re in, you’ll need to update your information with your employer first, and they should update it for your benefits across the board.
But just because your employer has done everything right, doesn’t mean your insurance provider has. If their online portal still has your old name or they never sent you a new insurance card with your new name, you’ll probably have to call them and walk through getting those things fixed.
Unfortunately, I spent a lot of time on the phone with my health insurance provider to get my name properly fixed across the board in their systems.
Medical Records / Providers
This one can be complicated. Some providers make it easier than others, especially with the increase in patient record portal access. Some require you to present ID in person to update your records. Generally, though, you will probably need:
- your updated insurance
- an updated ID
- possibly a copy of the court order
Depending on your own medical history, here are some examples of places you’ll want to update your name:
- Primary care provider (this is your main health care provider… I use One Medical, and they make it very easy to update your records with them by just emailing them through their secure messaging system with your new insurance and ID)
- Specialists (they may work in various health systems, such as Stanford, Sutter, or John Muir in the Bay Area)
- Pharmacies (Walgreens, CVS, Alto, etc.)
If you’re currently in school, updating your name may be as simple as submitting a form and a scanned copy of your court order to your registrar. If your school doesn’t have anything publicly posted about the process, unfortunately you’ll have to call or email your school(s) to find out what needs to be done.
If you’re not longer in school, you likely will need to contact the registrar, admissions, and/or alumni services. If you want a new copy of your transcripts, any certificates, or diplomas after you’ve updated your name with them, you will need to order those.
I’ve been able to update my name for my GED, community colleges I attended, and my current school where I am completing my BA.
If you have membership in the US’s Trusted Traveler Program (Global Entry, TSA Pre, Nexus, etc.), once you have your new passport, you’ll have to visit a Global Entry office with your old and new passport, as well as a certified copy of the court order. No appointment is required and it’s a fairly quick process (though you may have to wait a bit). And yes, this is still true during the pandemic. I am not traveling at all right now, so I’m postponing this step currently despite having my new passport in hand.
Other organizations that require ID for travel might include car rental companies, hotel bookings, trains, and airlines. Here are a few examples:
- Hertz requires a new driver’s license and is only updated when you pick-up a rental, so I’ve put this update on the backburner for the foreseeable future.
- United has instructions for changing your name through my MileagePlus account, including uploading the supporting documentation needed. This worked perfectly the first time I changed my name, but more recently it did not - I had to call their support to get things taken care of and resubmit my documentation while on the phone.
- Amtrak required that I email firstname.lastname@example.org with my current account name, member number, and copy of the court order. The subject was "Name Change" and in the body of the email I had to ask for my name to be updated to my new legal name.
I’ll give you some examples of this “everything else” category, because this is really going to depend on the person. I recommend looking through your password manager to see where you might need to update things. And if you need to update usernames, some sites allow you to do that (though you might have to email or call customer support), while others it may be easier to delete the account and create a new one.
While you can change your name yourself on REI’s website, that doesn’t actually update the name on your membership. You’ll need to call them to make the request.
I’ve done wilderness first aid training with NOLS, and wanted to get a copy of my certifications with my new legal name. Thankfully, they make this pretty easy. They have a name change request form on their site (if you don’t have an account, you’ll need to create one with your old name so it can find you in their system). Once that request was approved and my account updated, I was able to email them to request new copies of my certificates.
If you have an amateur radio license, you’ll need to update your information with the FCC. You’ll need to log-in to the ULS Online Filing system with your FRN and submit an administrative information update for your license. I didn’t include a scanned copy of the court order initially, and so it got bounced back to me, but after I attached the court order through the portal, it was approved pretty quickly and didn’t cost any money.
Some libraries might let you update via email or over the phone, while others might require you to come in person with your new ID. It really does vary.
I know a lot of these items were vague, but it’s pretty difficult to document this process for all of the organizations out there that require legal ID.
This also very specifically focused on legal ID and legal names. There are many more systems and places you might want to update your name (or username or email), and you could have a very long list when you include those as well. I had previously updated most of those during my first name change, so my second name change was very focused on the legal updates.
Where things were vague, the process I pretty consistently followed to figure things out was 1) search to see if there’s an obvious process, and 2) call (or email) customer support. Calling was almost always easier in the end, because there was a lot of misunderstanding along the way by folks who assumed I was changing my last name or other weird things.
Hope this helps and good luck - the process can feel daunting, but it's well worth it in the end.