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What's In a Name?

name tag

Tips on legally changing your name

By Manuella W. Hancock, JD, LLM

name tag

At some point in your life, you may want to change your name—because of a change in your marital status or gender or simply because you don’t like the one you have. Making this a permanent, legal change takes a little bit of work, but people do it every day.

If you want to change your name legally, you need to do it where you live. When you get married or divorced, you just need to bring the documentation to your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and Social Security Office (SSO), fill out the proper forms, and have the DMV and SSO issue your identification with your new name.

However, in all other circumstances, the first step is to complete an application in the correct court, and each court has its own steps and rules. The courts in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia have preprinted forms available online, with instructions on the steps to take. You don’t need a lawyer, but you do need to complete the process carefully. Each court’s application includes a section in which you explain the reason for the name change. You should never lie on these forms, and you should keep the explanation simple. For example: “I feel more comfortable with a different name because my birth name has painful associations.”

Be careful! Changing your gender designation is a slightly different process. In the District of Columbia and Maryland, you can change your gender markers through the DMV and SSO. In Virginia, it isn’t as simple. The DC Trans Coalition has several guides that walk folks through the process. While many groups provide assistance, for other trans resources, you can start with Equality Maryland and The Virginia Transgender Taskforce.

Manuella W. Hancock, JD, LLM, is an attorney practicing LGBT law in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and California. She is a member of the National Gay and Lesbian Bar Association Family Law Institute and represents LGBT individuals and families in a variety of Life Change Management legal issues.