Disclaimer: This is legal talk, not legal advice. Laws vary by jurisdiction and change often. Some of this may not apply to you. It is presented without warranty. It may contain errors or omissions. You must do your own research.
You can change your name at any time for any reason. Most transgender people need a legal name change. In many places, you have to see a judge and get a court order for name change to do that. This will help you change many other important things.
If you already use a new name, that is great! If not, see my page about choosing a name.
Ways to change your name
- This is called your preferred name. After you come out, just start telling people “My preferred name is ___.” It does not need any legal steps. It can include:
- Using a nickname.
- Using your initials.
- Using a whole new name.
- Some schools and jobs let you get a name tag or ID with your preferred name. Ask yours.
- Some US states let you get a driver’s license or state ID with your preferred name, but this is not a legal name change.
- You can make your preferred name your legal name later if you want to.
- Some people use a different name for what they do:
- Writer: pen name or nom de plume
- Performer: stage name
- Soldier: war name or nom de guerre
- Wrestler: ring name
- Gamer: gamertag
- Online: username or screen name
- Coder and amateur radio operator: handle
- Spy: codename
- This is called a pseudonym or alias. Pseudonym is Greek for “fake name.” Alias is Latin for “otherwise.” For example, I have used the username jokestress since 1995.
- Sometimes you might see these when someone lists both names:
- AKA or a/k/a: stands for “also known as”
- DBA or d/b/a: stands for “doing business as”
- A name used like this is called an assumed name. Your preferred name can become your assumed name in some places. This is called a common law name. Some people use an assumed name to break the law. Those people cannot change their names under common law.
- Using a preferred name or common law name is not as good as a court order for name change.
This is the strongest and best kind of name change. Most transgender people must get a legal name change. If you want a legal name change, you must go to court. That might sound scary, but it is not!
People change their names legally for many reasons:
- They do not like their legal name (sometimes called a birth name)
- They want to make their preferred name or assumed name official
- Marriage or divorce
- To match the last name of a loved one
- Personal safety
- Identity document changes
- Gender change
You cannot change your name to avoid paying debts or to commit fraud. You may need to work with a lawyer if you:
- lost a lawsuit and have a civil judgment against you
- have been convicted of a felony
- currently owe back taxes
- defaulted on credit
- declared bankruptcy
You can often still change your name if any of these are true. But you may need to work with a lawyer.
Court order for name change
If you are not an adult, there are different rules. You will need a parent or guardian to help.
If you are not a US citizen, there are different rules. You will need to contact your local government office.
The steps are different in each place. I recommend you get a large envelope or folder for all the things you need. Here are the basic steps:
1. Get the form you need
- Most of them are called a petition for change of name. You can get them online or go in person.
- The county or parish where you live has a clerk of court. They should have a website and an office. In larger offices, they may have a separate area called public records or chancery. Contact them if you need help.
2. Fill out the form
- IMPORTANT: Some places allow you to change your gender marker at the same time. Be sure to check any option requesting a gender marker change.
- The petition may ask for old and new names, address, length of state residency, and place of birth.
3. Request your court date
- If you have to go in person, bring money for any fees. Some offices may accept only cash and certified checks. They can tell you what you need.
- You can often ask for a court date near a certain day.
- Ask for the earliest time that day. When you are done, you can change your name on other things that need it.
- If you want the first available court date, they will give you one. It may be many weeks until you go to court. Mine was over seven weeks from the date I registered. Each place is different, so ask others in your area how long everything took for them.
4. Do the things you have to do before your court date
The steps are different in each state. They may include:
Publish a legal notice
- This notice may have to be put in a legal publication. The place where you turn in your petition will tell you. This will cost money. It may have to run for a set time before your court date.
- IMPORTANT: Some states let you skip this step if you want to change your gender marker. Ask if you can just have the judge review your case. This will make it so you don’t have to publish your old name next to your new name.
- They will often give you a receipt that proves you published the notice.
Get a form signed by someone you know
- You may need to give evidence to the court about your old and new names. This is often a written statement called an affidavit. The affidavit has to be signed by someone who knows your old name. The affidavit may need to be signed in front of an official witness called a notary public. Then it will be considered a notarized affidavit. You will usually be assigned a court date at this time.
5. Show up on your assigned court date and time.
A judge can choose to deny your petition, so show respect for the court:
- Dress nicely.
- Get there early.
- Follow any rules, like no phones and no talking.
Bring these things:
- Your completed petition. Some places tell you to bring copies.
- Money for any other fees and copies. Some places only take cash or certified checks. Others do not accept cash.
- Notarized affidavits (if required).
- Proof of legal notice publication (if required).
- Photo identification with old name (just in case)
- With some judges, it may be helpful to bring a letter from your doctor or therapist stating you have undergone medical transition and are requesting a gender change. You may even be able to get the judge to change your gender legally at the same time.
You may have to wait for your case to be called. When you go in front of the judge, you will have to swear or affirm that you will tell the truth. The judge may ask if you have ever:
- been convicted of a felony
- lost a lawsuit and have a civil judgment against you
- currently owe back taxes
- defaulted on credit
- declared bankruptcy
6. Get any certified copies you will need.
I returned to the chancery office to get certified copies of the signed judgment for $6 each. I got half a dozen just in case, but I probably won’t need half that many. You’ll need to send certified copies to some financial institutions and government agencies, which will NOT accept photocopies or notarized copies.
If this seems too hard
Have a friend or loved one help
- It can be nice to bring someone with you to court and help you do all the steps.
Contact a local or national transgender organization
- Many of them can help. See the resources at the end.
Have a lawyer help
- This can cost a lot of money. Some lawyers will do it pro bono, which means “for the good.” They will charge you less or do it free.
If a judge rejects your petition
Most courts are very reluctant to police name changes on the grounds of their being “inappropriate for your sex.” This opens up a huge area of law they’d rather not get into. Because of this, you are within your rights to choose any name. If the judge rejects your application, you are also within your rights to ask the reason. If you are rejected and have the judge on record saying he felt the name was not appropriate, you can probably get your case re-heard or appealed. Most higher courts would overturn a name change request denial on the grounds of inappropriate for your gender.
Changing your name pre-transition
In some cases, people wish to change their name earlier than most in transition. In these cases, some people have shown up in their assigned gender and asked for their new name. This has been used by people in conservative areas and by people who feel the judge might be more sympathetic if they appear as their assigned sex. This is more likely to succeed if you choose a gender-neutral new name.
Once you have changed it legally, you need to change everything else as well, so it’s best to change your name right before you are ready to use that name in all situations.
Divorce and name change
You can change your name as part of a divorce in some places. Some places do not allow it, or they restrict your name change to a reversion to your name pre-marriage.
- No extra fees are required
- There really is no process
- If you are not full-time yet, you may be outed depending on your name choice. That could be an issue in an alimony or custody case.
- Your name change will be part of a much longer document than a standard court order for name change. You may need to submit your divorce papers for some other name changes.
An option for some with “passing privilege”
I got this note from a reader in March 2004. I was able to do the same thing at a busy DMV branch in January 1998 after getting my card. I inspected it and told the guy there was a mistake and showed him the “M.” He said, “I guess there is,” and sent me to a special line where they made the correction on the spot.
My last report (August 2003) illustrated that I had a really difficult time getting all of the paperwork in order. However, last week I went to the DMV to get the sex (and height – I was 2″ taller on record) corrected. I had absolutely no problems at all – in and out in a record 20 minutes.
I just told the clerks that my license said I was 5’8″ and that I was male (!!). I told them that, well, I’m female and 5’6″ and they graciously changed it without requesting the letter from my doctor I had with me. The clerk that finally entered the data correction said that the person who entered the data (in 2003 when I had it updated for name change) “must have had their fingers on the wrong keys.”
The moral of the story is, approach the sex change on the license as a mistake in data entry and you might have a very easy time. Only use your documentation if they need more info “Well, we can’t really change it…”
For the record, I am still (alas) pre-op, but I pass very well.
As always, it is better to do everything with the proper legal documentation to avoid problems now and later. A reader writes:
Hi! I thought I would let you know how my id changes have been going. To start with I had the court change my gender as well as my name at the same time … however, having a court order to change gender really means just about nothing to all these id people >=l. When I got my social security card they still demanded a doctors note and I mean I thought that was ok. Then at the dmv, I gave them the court order and doctors note and they said that still wasn’t enough =/. The guy made me take some medical form to my doctor to be filled out. And today I got my id….. which still has “sex: m”. And I’m totally filled with rage! I thought a COURT ORDER would mean something to these people and then I jumped through all there other hoops and still I get a “sex:m” It makes me wonder if they even changed it on my social card info =/ Anywayz… I just kinda needed to vent to someone that could understand… =p well.. I’m sure I’ll e-mail you again so until then…
Establishing residency in a lenient state
Some people from conservative states have established residency in a nearby state with more transgender-friendly laws. To establish residency, many states require that you live there at least half the year.
Find a street residence
- Post office boxes and private mailboxes do not count. Perhaps a friend or loved one in that state can help.
- Some states have an official “Declaration of Domicile” you need to complete.
Change your mailing address and forward your mail
- Get mail delivered to the new address, especially utility bills.
Set up a utility with your name at the address
- A mobile phone is the easiest one, but better ones include gas, water, electricity, and cable.
Update IRS with new address
- Complete Form 8822.
Register to vote listing the new address
- Some states have “motor voter” laws that allow registration at the DMV.
Get a driver’s license listing the new address
File state taxes listing the new address
Update bank account listing the new address
Register your pet listing the new address
In 2005, the US government passed the Real ID Act, requiring all US states, districts, and territories to meet certain federal security requirements in the ID cards they issue. These often have a higher threshold of evidence required in order to change name and gender on identification.
Personal information databases
Several commercial databases maintain huge amounts of information on people. Some of this is only available to paying customers, but more and more is available for free online. These sites can include your old name. It is a good idea to search your old name and see where it comes up and see if you can remove it if you are concerned about that.
Resources in the United States (includes some name change information)
International resources (includes some name change information)
Department of Homeland Security (dhs.gov)
Katrina Rose (profile)