People change names for all sorts of reasons: everything from marriage and divorce to cultural or religious reasons. If you're an adult, you can change your name to almost anything that you want (just ask Beezow Doo-doo Zopittybob-bop-bop, for example), as long as you aren't trying to defraud anyone or hide from the law. If you want to use the name legally, however, there are some specific steps to take that depend on your situation. Here's what you should know.

If you just got married

The custom of one spouse changing his or her last name to the other's is fairly commonly accepted. Within the first two years after your wedding, you can present your marriage certificate to the Social Security Administration and request a corrected Social Security card under your new name. (This is legal for both males and females, and many same-sex couples elect to use the same last name.)

If you just got divorced

Equally common is the custom of reclaiming a prior name after a divorce. However, unless your divorce decree specifically orders it, the default name you can use will be the one you had right before that particular marriage. If you've been married more than once and want to use your original last name instead of your previous married name, the easiest thing to do is to ask the judge to include the order for the name change in your divorce decree.

If you want your birth certificate changed

If you want your name to be changed on your birth certificate, which is what needs to happen when you change it for any reason other than marriage or divorce, you have to file a petition in your county probate court. Name changes are fairly common, so many counties have the process fairly streamlined. 

In most counties, you'll have to take the following steps:

  1. Fill out the request for the name change. You'll be asked to write down a short explanation of why you want the name change–simply saying that you don't like your old name is usually enough.
  2. Provide proof that you live in the county and have lived there for the required period of time. In order to keep people from trying to change their names to avoid creditors or the law, most counties have a residency requirement. It isn't unusual for the residency requirement to be a full year, like it is in Erie County, Ohio.
  3. Pay a filing fee. This goes to the court and covers the cost of the time it takes for the court to approve the name change and handle the paperwork. While costs vary, you can generally expect it to cost no more than a few hundred dollars (and often less). In New York City, for example, it only costs $65. n Summit County, Ohio, for example, the fee is only $110. However, in Palm Beach County, Florida, you'll have to pay $401.
  4. Publish the name change. The court may have streamlined the process and will do it for you, or you may have to take the required notice (which the court will give you) to the local newspaper yourself. Making a public notice is another way that the court uses to prevent any fraud.
  5. Go to court. You may or may not have to do this, depending on where you live. Some courts routinely approve so many name changes that they don't require people to attend the court date. In other areas, you may be asked to attend court and restate your reason for the request to the judge.

Once the judge signs off on your request, your name is legally changed. The court will provide you with a document that proves your name is changed and you can use it to request an amended birth certificate from the state in which you were born. You can also use it to change the name on your Social Security card (your number will remain the same).

You can use the new Social Security card to change your name on your driver's license or state ID card. Once that's done, you can begin the process of changing the names on your bank accounts, credit cards, rental agreements and other personal paperwork. Keep in mind that even if you changed your name in court, amended your birth certificate, and updated your Social Security card, you still have to notify every company that you do business with personally–they won't automatically get any sort of notice.

If it seems overwhelming to handle all of this yourself, many lawyers will be happy to handle the whole process for you. While it will cost a little more, the attorney fees may be well worth the ease of not having to manage all of the steps yourself. For more information, consider talking to an attorney in your area today, like Topalian & Associates.