I recently had my name legally changed to a name which reflects my gender more accurately. While people changing their names isn’t uncommon, the way that it happens most frequently is via marriage or divorce. In my case, I’m already married, and have no plans to divorce, so I had to change my name through the civil court system. For such a simple thing, a lot had to happen, and I still have a lot of work in front of me. Here’s the basic process I’ve gone through:
Choosing a name
In some ways, this was the hardest part of the whole process. How does one choose their own name? Usually, a person’s name isn’t something they choose – it’s given to them by their parents. I remembered a conversation many years ago where my parents revealed one of the names they considered for me, if I had been assigned female at birth. So I tried it on.
First, I used it for some online accounts, especially those having to do with my exploration and research of my gender. It went well, but it sometimes felt like I was faking, catfishing, almost. But then I asked my support group to begin using the name for me (as well as feminine pronouns), which they happily did. At first it felt weird, but within a few weeks, it felt nice – I was being accepted and affirmed for who I was simply because I said that it’s true. My family also used it, and it took longer to not feel so weird about hearing it from them.
But the name wasn’t quite a good fit. While I like the name, it wasn’t going to work as my first name. So I went to the baby names lists and jotted down names which didn’t feel wrong. While that might sound strange, at that time, female names still felt weird in general when applied to me. I came up with a list around 20 names, and I worked with my family to narrow it further – down to 3 names. One of them stood out as one that I like, so I tried that one on – asking support group to use the new name (again, they readily agreed). This name felt like a fit, and it’s the one I went with. I used the previous candidate as a middle name.
The Legal System
Now that I had my name, I want to use it in more places. But I can’t use it for some things, among those are identification documents (Social Security Card, Drivers License, Passport, etc). The only way to get it changed on those documents is to obtain a legal name change.
This starts with gathering a lot of information: any previous names, every address I’ve ever lived at and the dates I lived there and information about my parents.
Next, I prepared the legal paperwork and forms required. In the state where I live, blank forms can be downloaded from the state Supreme Court website. I filled them out, then filled out a cover sheet required by the circuit court which serves the county I live in. On a cool day in November, I went to the courthouse with my spouse and a few friends who were also filing their paperwork, and we did it all together. We first visited a Family Law review office, where a clerk examined our documents and showed any changes or corrections that needed to be made. It turns out I was missing one form, so she gave me a blank copy and I filled it out. She reviewed it and notarized it on the spot, then stamped my paperwork with her seal of approval – literally!
We next went to the clerks’ office, where we each took numbers and waited for them to be called. Before long I was up and handed over my packet. The clerk looked it over and saw the stamp of approval, so he proceeded to file it. He scanned the documents into the system, then asked for payment – it was over $400 in court costs! He gave me instructions for the next step and sent me on my way, to get…
At first glance, this might seem easy, even trivial. Just walk into the nearest police station and have them take your fingerprints, right? Not so fast. Where I live, the courts require a specific type of fingerprinting that not all police departments have. Also, not all police stations (or departments) perform fingerprinting as a community service. A little research (and a few tips from others who have been through the process) revealed that one nearby police department had a community service outpost in a mall, and that they performed the correct type of fingerprinting. I ran to the mall, paid $15 (cash-only), and they performed my fingerprinting – on an electronic fingerprinting device. They submitted my prints electronically into the state database and gave me some paperwork with a tracking number and instructions for my next step, ordering a…
Criminal history check
But why, you might ask, do you need to have a criminal history check? You just want to change your name, right? Well, some people in the past have ruined it for the rest of us by using legal name change as a way to perpetrate fraud – to escape debt, evade legal obligations, and hide from law enforcement. After all, if someone comes looking for John Smith and you can provide proof that your name is Jason Doe, they have the wrong person, right? So as part of obtaining a legal name change, I had to prove that I’m not trying to use my name change to avoid responsibility.
So now that I have my fingerprints in the database, I visited a state-run website where I pulled up my record, then ordered a criminal background check to be performed. The state would compare my fingerprint against those in the state system, as well as against the FBI database, then report my results directly back to the court. This cost around $40 to order, and was completed within a few days. A few weeks later, I got a letter in the mail with my…
This is it! This is the moment where everything changes! So what happened? Not a lot, really.
My family accompanied me to my hearing, and we arrived early as instructed. We waited in the hallway for a long time before a clerk came out and began calling us back, one party at a time. When I was called, we all filed in, and I proceeded to a table in front of the judge. After being sworn in, he reviewed my paperwork and asked me a few questions:
Judge: “You’re here to legally change your name?”
J: “To What?”
Me: “Me” [Insert my full legal name here]
J: “Do you have any bankruptcies, liens, judgments or litigation against you?”
J: “I approve this name change. See the clerk downstairs to get certified copies of the judgement.”
That was it. No drum roll, no cymbals crashing, no fireworks, no confetti cannon. We went downstairs, paid my money and got certified copies of the court order, then we went and had breakfast. I didn’t know that the work was only just beginning. Here I thought that I’d gone and successfully changed my name, but as it turns out, changing your name is more than a court order.
I’ll get into that next time. But until then, I’m…