How to legally change your name : Life Kit Many trans and nonbinary people choose new names during their transition. Here's advice if you're considering adopting a new name — from brainstorming name ideas to navigating the paperwork to change your name legally.

You can choose a new name for yourself. Here's how

You can choose a new name for yourself. Here's how

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Before you commit to a new name, take it for a test drive. For example, use that name for your next coffee order. Then pay attention to how you feel when you hear it called out. Jasjyot Singh Hans for NPR hide caption

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Jasjyot Singh Hans for NPR

Before you commit to a new name, take it for a test drive. For example, use that name for your next coffee order. Then pay attention to how you feel when you hear it called out.

Jasjyot Singh Hans for NPR

I haven't always been named Tuck Woodstock. I legally changed my name when I was fresh out of college, and then changed it again seven years later. So, I know firsthand how daunting the entire name change process can be — from choosing your new name to filing for a court order to updating your info with your bank, the pharmacy, the gym, the library, various utility companies ...

I could go on, but the point is that name changes can be intimidating even in the easiest possible scenario. And, when you're trans, nothing is ever the easiest possible scenario. If you're looking for guidance in your name change journey, this step-by-step guide can help.

Brainstorm possible names

There's no singularly correct way to choose a name, so feel free to draw inspiration from whatever resonates with you. Popular options include celebrities, fictional characters, family members, flora and fauna.

Of course, not all trans people change their names when they transition. (Celebrities Sam Smith, Sara Ramirez and Ezra Furman all kept their birth names, for example.) If you stick with your current name after exploring other options, that doesn't make you "less trans" than someone who changed theirs.

Take it for a test drive

With names, as with many big life decisions, it's wise to try before you buy. Before you make a public announcement, consider asking a trusted circle of friends — like your roommates, your favorite group chat, or a trans community space — to address you with your potential new name for a while. Or, if you're feeling shy, try using the new name for your next coffee or takeout order, and take note of how it feels to hear that name called out.

This trial period typically takes weeks or even months, and many trans people try out multiple names before finding one they eventually stick with. (Some of us even legally change our name multiple times!) So, don't rush the process, and don't feel like you need to get it "right" on your first try.

File a petition

If you choose to change your name legally, you'll need to file for a name change with your local court. Depending on where you live this could be online or in person. The exact rules vary by state and sometimes even by county, so you'll want to ask the court for any self-help forms and tools that detail specific requirements.

"In most places, it is doable on your own without an attorney if it's a straightforward case," says Charlie Arrowood, a New York attorney who provides name and gender marker change assistance to trans clients. In addition to asking your local court's info center for help, they also suggest visiting the National Center for Transgender Equality ID Documents Center, an online resource that explains the current name change, driver's license, and birth certificate policies in all 50 states.

Depending on where you live, your legal name change process could be as easy as filling out an online form, or as intensive as attending a formal hearing and getting fingerprinted by the FBI. You'll also need to pay a filing fee, which could cost anywhere from $50 in Hawaii to $450 in California.

Keep yourself safe

Many courts will let you seal your name change records upon request, which prevents your previous name and other personal information from becoming public record. Some states also require petitioners to advertise their name changes in a local newspaper — a harrowing concept for many trans people.

"It all started when creditors needed to know whether a debtor changed their name," Arrowood says of the ad requirement. "In New York, your old name, new name, date of birth, place of birth and where you live were all going in the newspaper."

New York has since removed its publication requirement, but if your state still has one in place, you'll likely want to request a publication waiver from the court. (If you need assistance, Arrowood suggests reaching out to a local legal aid resource or LGBTQ organization.)

If you're still feeling concerned about privacy — a reasonable fear, given the current prevalence of trans-exclusionary laws and anti-trans sentiment in the United States — you can also use services like DeleteMe or OneRep to remove records of your old name from various online databases.

Take it one step at a time

"When you walk out of the courthouse with your court orders ... there's no monolithic database that knows that you have changed your name," says Arrowood. So, once you've received your court order, you'll need to individually update all of your other documents, including your Social Security card, driver's license and bank accounts, just to name a few. (Keep in mind that it costs money to update your license, passport and birth certificate.)

For better or for worse, there are no deadlines for these changes and no official order of operations that you need to follow. To avoid getting overwhelmed by endless paperwork, take everything one step at a time, and tackle the tasks in whatever order and pace feel most manageable to you. And if you realize in a few years that you forgot to update your name on a rarely-used account somewhere? Well, that unfortunately happens to most of us.

Ask for help

Remember: you are not the first trans person to ever change your name, and you don't need to reinvent the wheel. Whether you need help testing out a new name, covering your filing fees, or forcing the credit bureau to stop deadnaming you, there are all sorts of logistical and financial resources out there for trans folks and plenty of people who would be more than happy to lend a hand. And if you're nervous about going to the courthouse, don't hesitate to ask for a little bit of emotional support.

"Bring a friend," advises Arrowood. "It totally helps. You can squeeze their hand, and they can whisper in your ear and tell you everything's going to be okay."


This episode of Life Kit was produced by Sylvie Douglis with additional editing from Sam Leeds and Soraya Shockley.

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