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Levitt Family Law & Mediation’s Blog

What’s in a Name (and How to Change it)?

by | Aug 31, 2023 | Divorce

In Romeo and Juliet, playwright William Shakespeare asked the question, “What’s in a name?”

Does a name itself have meaning, or it is just an arbitrary label given to us at birth? Does our name define us or our characteristics?

We are not given a choice as to our birth name. Our name is decided for us, before we have come fully into being. It may be a name given to honor a loved one alive or deceased, be related to generational or cultural norms, or be a name that evokes something that reflects a shared joy or interest of the parents.

A name may engender both positive and negative emotions – pride and joy, but also shame and disgrace. A name can be a source of identity, but it can also create a feeling of lack of belonging. Shane McCrae who wrote a book called Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping, about being kidnapped from his father by his maternal grandparents. When eventually reunited with his father, he took his father’s name which he described in an NPR interview as being highly emotional, a reuniting with his family and community. In listening to the interview, one could imagine the author’s feelings of shedding an old identity and the promise of a new one that better reflected his “self.”

Many people, including minors, want to change their names for a myriad of reasons – marriage, divorce, adoption, gender, or even to create a whole new name such as when a couple getting married do not want to follow societal norms regarding name changes after marriage.

How a Legal Name Change Occurs

In Massachusetts, you can change your name without the need for a legal proceeding by merely using another name, as long as it is not done for nefarious reasons such as fraud or to hide a criminal record. However, in order to get proper identification such as a driver’s license or passport, you have to legally change your name.

A legal name change can occur at the time of marriage, at the time of divorce when you can resume a former legal name, when you become a naturalized citizen, or by filing a name change petition with the Probate and Family Court. Generally, name change petitions are allowed administratively without the necessity for a hearing, as long as there is no objection and it is not against the public interest, but the court can schedule a hearing if it deems it necessary.

Along with the name change petition, there are other documents that must be filed with the Court. These include a certified copy of your birth certificate, a certified document showing any name change you have had in the past, a Court Activity Record Information (CARI) form, and a Warrant Management System Release Request Form (WMS). The Court issues a “citation,” which is to provide notice to the public of the name change request. The citation must be “published” in a newspaper (online), as directed by the Court, unless publication is waived which you can request. There may also be requirements regarding notice to particular individuals or state agencies in some cases.

Children and Name Change

For children who want a name change or have parents who want their name changed, a name change can occur as a result of an adoption proceeding, when a paternity judgment orders a change in a child’s name, or by filing a petition to change the name of a minor. It is very difficult to change a child’s name without the consent of both parents or of the child’s legal guardians, and if the petition is contested the court will determine what is in the child’s best interest. A child over age 12 must consent to the name change petition. Like the name change petition for adults, the name change petition for a minor is usually filed with the Probate and Family Court. There are similar notice provisions to those of an adult name change petition.

Documents that need to be filed with the name change petition for a minor are a certified copy of the child’s birth certificate, a CARI, a WMS for anyone 12 or older, a certified copy of any prior name change, the child’s notarized approval if the child is over age 12, an affidavit disclosing prior or pending care or custody proceedings involving the child, the death certificate of a deceased parent or guardian, and an Assent to Petition to Change Name of Minor if a minor child’s legal parent or court-appointed guardian wants to assent to the petition using a separate form.

The Benefit of Legal Counsel

Name change petitions for adults or minors are not usually complicated legal processes, but it is helpful to have counsel guide you through the necessary steps. Name change petitions provide a positive outcome for those involved. They are invariably filed because the individual’s given name just does not “fit” the person. The individual sees a name as part of their identity that they want to leave behind or create anew.

So, to answer Shakespeare’s question of “What’s in a name?”

To the individual, in claiming or reclaiming one’s “self,” it can be everything.

If you are seeking or considering a name change, contact us for counsel and guidance through the process.