What are legal aspects of changing one's name to a mononym, or employing multiple legal aliases?
January 23, 2011 6:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm changing my name to a mononym. What should I know or do to make this easier?

To head off the obvious: I'm not asking for legal advice, just information. I'm giving context and references for clarity. I know you're not my lawyer.

About 10 years ago, when I was living in California, I started going by the name "Sai Emrys". CA allows for common law name change, and I got a DBA for the name so I could open a checking account with it, but I never got around to going through the court-order process. Given post-9/11 security measures, it's very hard to get bureaucracies to acknowledge a common law name change, so the name on my government ID etc is still my birth name.

Ever since then, I had been going pretty much exclusively by the name Sai except when forced otherwise by bureaucracies. Nobody who knows me IRL calls me by another name, and few even know what it is. I listed "Sai Emrys" as an AKA in my passport registration, and it's one of the signatures I put in it. I have multiple publications in it. I sign my checks, bank statements, etc. "Sai" - though I give my legal name, since that's the only one they will acknowledge.

I recently moved to Illinois, and at around the same time, decided two things.

1. I haven't really ever liked "Emrys", and it actually rather grates on me to use a last name. I added it as a formalism, some sense that I had to, but actually I've never used it and I don't respond positively to "Mr. Emrys". Therefore, I dropped its usage entirely except where I'm forced to enter a last name on a form.

I currently give my name exclusively as "Sai", generally correct people if they add a second name (though I haven't bothered to redact all stuff that's had the "Emrys" from before this decision), have been cited by name in major media outlets as just "Sai", etc.

2. It's about time I got my new name legally recognized. I've lived with it for a decade, and being addressed by my birth name - even by faceless bureaucracies - really strongly irritates me.

I also figure that with a court order I'll be able to get my actual name (Sai) more recognized in other contexts.

Illinois law (735 IL CS 5/21) requires 6 months' residency before one can obtain a court ordered name change. I intend do so as soon as I obtain residency (in March), together with registering DBAs for both the binym "Sai Emrys" and my birth name to give me a bit more legal flexibility. It'll cost ~$400 in total.

I'm fairly sure that changing my name to this mononym is completely legal:

1. The Full Faith & Credit Clause requires IL to respect my already existing CA common law name change
2. TTBOMK, the only restrictions on name changes that have been upheld are: no fraud (e.g. celeb names, copyrights, avoiding arrest/debt, etc), no obscenity / fighting words, and nothing intentionally confusing (e.g. "?." or "10" - though there is Jennifer 8. Lee). "Sai" is none of those.
3. I'm not disqualified from name change (no felonies, child abuse, etc).

However, I realize that there are extremely few legally mononymous people in the West (vs. say Indonesia, where mononyms are the most frequent form), and therefore that I'm liable to run into problems.

I'll carry around ID and a certified copy of the name change order, but that may not always fix them. ;-)

For instance, simply due to poorly designed databases - representing names is hard - I may be forced to give a last name sometimes despite not legally having one.

I could give "Emrys", but that would be my DBA. It's not clear in what situations that's permissible, and I'm fairly sure that there's no situation in which I'd be obliged to pick this option over others.

I could give any of a very large number of sentinel values, e.g. " ", ".", "-", "n/a", "NULL", "no last name", etc. etc. This would be interestingly similar to, but far stronger than, the common practice of people giving a different middle initial in different contexts as a sousveillance tactic to track how their name has been shared and to frustrate attempts at data mining them.

Thus, my questions:

1. What problems do you think I may have, and how might I overcome them or invert them to my advantage? For example, what might I ask the name change court to do that would make things easier?

2. Are there any flaws in my legal reasoning above, or better cites to use? Especially helpful would be court cases that are binding in CA, IL, or federally.

3. How should I deal with the "multiple sentinel values" issue, and what are possible consequences (legal or otherwise) of possible options?

4. Anything else that would be helpful?


- Sai
posted by saizai to Law & Government (47 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't see how it could be legal to deny someone the right to have their name changed to a mononym, as that would be discriminating against the people who were born mononymous.

When I worked at a university that had a couple of mononymous international students, the advice we had from the Department of Education was to give their mononym as their surname and put "NFN" (for "no first name") in that field. I don't know if that is the current practice, or how widely that extends.

This might sound ridiculous, but have you considered consulting Cher's attorneys? She is legally mononymous and a resident of California, so presumably her attorneys know the ins and outs of this.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:34 PM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Look up information on Teller (as in Penn and), since I hear he has done this.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:39 PM on January 23, 2011

Best answer: My friend MegaZone did this, and someone interviewed him for his local paper.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 6:47 PM on January 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

I've often seen people represented in databases as NLN for No Last name or NFN for No First Name, so I assume that would work when presented with the data requirement.
posted by msbutah at 6:49 PM on January 23, 2011

Oh, and just about everyone calls him "Zoner." "Sai" isn't quite as shortenable, so you probably won't have the "people make up a new name for you on top of your new name" problem.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 6:51 PM on January 23, 2011

Response by poster: Sidhedevil - I've emailed Manatt's LA contact; thanks for the tip.

jenfullmoon - AFAICT there is zero information online about Teller's name other than a single line on a P&T website FAQ that has since been taken down. I emailed them asking about it (to improve the WP article) but got no response.

fairytale - Thanks for the link! Yeah, my name's about as short as they get. I like that; it makes it very easy to remember and spell. (Though FWIW, I've seen databases that impose minimum length restrictions on names... fortunately I've not seen one that requires more than 3 characters.)

msbutah - What if sometimes it's listed as "NLN", sometimes as "no last name", etc as I mentioned? If one is excessively anal about it, it's true that these do not in fact "match"...
posted by saizai at 6:56 PM on January 23, 2011

Best answer: As far as what to put on forms, I'd like to caution against using "none". On more than one occasion I've heard people be called Jane "Noh-nay" Smith when reading off a list.

Back when I was a paralegal, the best one to use was NoFirstName or NoNameGiven. It's obviously not a name, first of all, and removing the spaces protects against database fillers cutting off after the first word.
posted by phunniemee at 7:03 PM on January 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've seen "NFN" (or "NLN") used as Sidhedevil describes. Where this isn't possible, I've also seen the mononym used as both first and second names (I saw this working for a company whose email addresses used a first-initial-followed-by-surname format, so you would be ssai@company.com, and the email would be from "Sai Sai").
posted by jaynewould at 7:08 PM on January 23, 2011

Back when I was a paralegal, the best one to use was NoFirstName or NoNameGiven. It's obviously not a name, first of all, and removing the spaces protects against database fillers cutting off after the first word.

I don't have any experience with this, but thinking as a programmer I could suggest using "No_first_name" or "No_name_given" if you wanted to have something slightly more readable along the lines of phunniemee's suggestion but still "database friendly" so to speak. Although honestly spaces should be just fine too, unless we're talking about a super-outdate system.
posted by dubitable at 7:11 PM on January 23, 2011

From what I've seen in medical records, btw, is the same as above - mononym used for both first and last. (However, I've only seen it twice, both for people from countries where it wasn't uncommon, especially in older generations, YMMV, this is on the East Coast.)
posted by cobaltnine at 7:12 PM on January 23, 2011

I know a guy with just one name (let's call him Jim) and in forms that require two names for database reasons, he just enters the name twice: Jim Jim.
posted by lollusc at 7:17 PM on January 23, 2011

Best answer: Law prof. Eugene Volokh loves to collect unusual name change cases. He had an article in Slate and also has written about it on his blog a few times - example here, and also scroll down for links to related posts.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 7:25 PM on January 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

but thinking as a programmer I could suggest using "No_first_name" or "No_name_given" if you wanted to have something slightly more readable along the lines of phunniemee's suggestion but still "database friendly" so to speak.

Lots and lots of databases restrict name fields to alphabet-only, and maybe the hyphen.

"no-last-name" might be better.
posted by Netzapper at 7:26 PM on January 23, 2011

Lots and lots of databases restrict name fields to alphabet-only, and maybe the hyphen.

Ah, well...there ya go. I don't have experience with them but I'll defer to someone who does.

I'll just be stepping out now...
posted by dubitable at 7:33 PM on January 23, 2011

Response by poster: Conrad - I've emailed Volokh, thanks for the pointer.

I've done pretty much all of my business as "Sai" (via my DBA), and generally get email saizai@company.com.

FWIW, I'm a programmer too. So far none of you have commented on what would happen if I have different sentinel-valued names in different systems. E.g. one might think I'm "Sai Sai" (which BTW is someone else's name), another "Sai NLN", etc.

Computers would not know that these are the same person, nor would particularly anal bureaucrats. I'm wondering what possible consequences (good and bad) there might be to that.
posted by saizai at 7:57 PM on January 23, 2011

Centralized records get crossed all the time for folks with typical names, even with middle names and dates birth as further identifiers, so I wouldn't imagine having multiple versions of a single name will make record keeping any easier. Consequences of computers/people not recognizing that Sai Emrys is now Sai but is not Sai Sai and being uncertain as to who NFN Sai or Sai NLN are center around the inability to cross reference your data from one system to another because the name can't be reconciled. Medical history could get 'lost' as could credit history and financial/legal records. Bills generally don't care who pays as long as the acct number is correct.
posted by beaning at 8:31 PM on January 23, 2011

"1. The Full Faith & Credit Clause requires IL to respect my already existing CA common law name change"

Don't bring this up. Non-lawyers don't really understand the subtleties of full faith & credit and when and how it applies. You don't have any real legal bars to changing your name, and I can't see this doing anything but irritating the judge ... and possibly kicking off a round of legal research on whether Illinois DOES have to give full faith and credit to California's common-law name changes that isn't remotely necessary but might delay your change. A (very) cursory survey doesn't turn up a single case relating to common law name changes in other states applied in Illinois, and FF&C allows a variety of exceptions. (Half a dozen marriage-related issues jump to mind but don't seem on point here.) I'd sort-of want to bicker with you about it just on principle if I were the judge, since it's a large and novel legal claim to be making. So, you know, avoid it.

(On a related note, once I had an Illinois judge delay a judicial declaration of death by two years, until he rolled off the case when judge assignments changed, because he didn't want to cope with something novel that he'd never done before. The case was absolutely clear and absolutely in conformity with Illinois's requirements, but that didn't stop him from delaying me for TWO. YEARS. So don't get fancy if you don't have to; judges either hate novelty and try to get rid of it, or they love it and want to pick at it. Either way makes things SLOW.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:43 PM on January 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

(In fact, now that I think on it, I can think of some very good public policy reasons why Illinois should NOT give FF&C to other states' common law name changes, and I would sort-of like to bicker with you about it, LOL. Not because I care, just because you've excited my "ooooh, legal point to argue about" brain.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:47 PM on January 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Another good person to contact about this might be Mitch, who is both mononymous and a law professor.

"mononymous" is really fun to type
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 8:48 PM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: beaning - I'm not sure if those failures are good things or bad. :-P

FWIW, I keep a complete copy of my medical records in my personal possession, so that part shouldn't be a problem for any legitimate use thereof (i.e. at my request). If it's a problem for people just trying to mine me records without my active consent, I think that's just awesome.

Eyebrows - Could you explain what exceptions you see to FF&C that might (in some judge's mind) permit IL to not respect a CA common law name change? I'm not contradicting your advice, just would like to understand your claim better. I happen to have that same brain part. ;-)

Akidenz - Email sent. (How the hell do y'all know these people? MeFi is awesome.) And yeah, it really is. :)
posted by saizai at 9:01 PM on January 23, 2011

Response by poster: News story about Mitch
posted by saizai at 9:07 PM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

memail me if you want; I'd just be speculating. But I recently followed a case where someone with multiple unofficial aliases and allegedly some serious crimes in his background under one of them slipped past the state police background check system, got a CDL and a job driving a school bus, and smashed the bus into parked cars while DUI, sending something like 20 children to the hospital. So you can see where a state might frown on unofficial name changes done in other states that involve no paper trail. :)

My understanding is the state has been trying to tighten up on this kind of thing; I'm involved in schools so I mostly follow the school cases, but there have been a couple of other embarrassing cases recently of someone getting a "clean" background check who had ugly, ugly records in another state, sometimes under a slightly different name or an entirely different alias. (One I read about was a HS girls coach who had a rape conviction for raping a legal-but-teenaged girl in Tennessee, I think it was?, that didn't come up b/c he left out his middle initial or something like that ... anyway, he tried to proposition a female student around the same age as the young woman he'd raped -- doh. It wasn't near my district so I don't recall all the details; I was mostly glad it wasn't my problem.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:14 PM on January 23, 2011

Best answer: I was going to pop in & mention that mononymous people can run foul of embedded database rules, but I see you're already aware of that. Having some professional experience in this matter, here are some things to consider:

You should expect First Name & Family Name fields to both be mandatory a lot of the time, which will be a bit of a headache for you. Given that the massive majority of people in the west have both, companies & government agencies are more concerned about the risk & subsequent follow-up costs associated with gathering non-compliant data through one or other field being accidentally left blank, than they are about what this means for the 0.000001% of people who are mononymous.

You could, as you say, use a sentinel value in one of the fields but one issue you might face is that as data is increasingly cross-matched & shared (within &/or between organisations) if you don't use the exact same value every time, it will be harder to match up your records. You might see this as an advantage or a disadvantage, but I'll suggest to you that it would be a pain in the butt to have multiple customer records at your bank, insurance company or wherever.

Government agencies in particular could cause you some grief - say, if you apply for a passport & they run a script to validate your data against the tax records. One is "Sai Nolastname" and the other is "Sai Idonthaveone". Your data gets thrown up as an exception for human attention, which means everything will now take days or weeks longer. Ditto if your customer record at your airline doesn't match exactly whatever data Homeland Security uses. I'm sure you get the point.

PS - a well designed system shouldn't allow some of the sentinel values you mention, eg " " or anything that's pure punctuation. A good rule of thumb would be to assume they will accept only alpha, hyphens & apostrophes. You need the latter two for double-barrelled surnames or O'Connor / L'Estrange style names, but those really are the only necessary non-alpha characters.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:37 PM on January 23, 2011

That PS was meant to mean that if you want to use the same sentinel value everywhere, use the "lowest common denominator" one that you know will pass all database validation rules, eg alpha-only "nolastname" in preference to "no_last_name".
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:41 PM on January 23, 2011

Response by poster: UbuRoivas - Is your suggestion then that I standardize on a sentinel value of form /[a-z'-]+/?

The article on Mitch above seems to indicate he uses "_" — at least sometimes.

FWIW I do kinda see breaking nonconsensual cross-references as a bonus, much like people who vary their middle initial. I know too much about how that can get mined not to. :-P

But likewise I don't want to get in legal trouble. I agree there are at least some finite set of entities to whom it'd be in my best interest to give the same full name - e.g. passport, social security, IRS, DMV, state FTB. Who else should get that privilege?
posted by saizai at 9:46 PM on January 23, 2011

sai - safest would be just a-z.

The article on Mitch above seems to indicate he uses "_" — at least sometimes.

"Sometimes" being the operative word, for databases with lax validation rules. With tighter validation, he wouldn't have that option.

Consensual v nonconsensual cross-referencing can sound very big-brotherish, but it's very typical for large organisations to have a number of different siloed customer databases, which they're always trying to get to talk to each other through integration, which is some kind of grey area between consensual & nonconsensual.

For your own convenience, it's better for you, for example, if your insurance company can recognise that you're the same guy who has home, health & vehicle insurance with them & not 3 different guys. For a start, if you move houses you won't spend the next year trying to get all your statements & things mailed to the correct address. You won't be spammed by mailouts offering insurance that you already have under a different customer record, and you'd be entitled to discounts that you mightn't be aware of.

I think it's specifically the ability for you to maintain the correctness of your own information by having a single source of truth about you (within the organisation) that would save a lot of niggling little headaches.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:15 PM on January 23, 2011

FWIW, Emrys is a great last name. :D Kind of jealous.

I had a friend in high school whose parents did not give him a middle name. We'll call him John Doe. This caused him no end of problems, because in some databases he was "John Doe" and in others, for whatever reason, he was listed as "John X Doe". Credit cards, school applications, insurance... it was always a tremendous headache convincing the computers that he was who he said he was, simply because his name didn't fit the "accepted" formula of FIRST_NAME, MIDDLE_INITIAL, LAST_NAME. So, cool as a mononym would be, it might lead to major headaches down the road.
posted by xedrik at 10:37 AM on January 24, 2011

I would go with "NFN Sai" when forced to enter first and last name. What could be better than sharing an official designation with Mr. Data?
posted by vorfeed at 12:38 PM on January 24, 2011

there are at least some finite set of entities to whom it'd be in my best interest to give the same full name - e.g. passport, social security, IRS, DMV, state FTB. Who else should get that privilege?

I'm not sure what state FTB is or how things are done in the US, but in Australia each state has a registry of births, deaths & marriages, which normally also maintains the official records of legal name changes. Your birth certificate (along with any subsequent certificates evidencing a change of name, eg through marriage) is one of the primary building blocks of your legal identity, and also goes a long way towards establishing your citizenship.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:34 PM on January 24, 2011

Best answer: Prof. Eugene Volokh emailed me a link to this comprehensive review of the right to control one's name, written by his student.
posted by saizai at 3:12 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Any comments on why I should prefer one of "NFN Sai" / "Sai NLN" over the other?
posted by saizai at 3:13 PM on January 24, 2011

The family name is generally considered more "important" and "official", so I'd go with NFN Sai over Sai NLN. "Hello, NFN" at the top of your bank login page is annoying, but "Welcome, Mr. NLN" seems somehow worse to me.

Like Sidhedevil says, "When I worked at a university that had a couple of mononymous international students, the advice we had from the Department of Education was to give their mononym as their surname and put "NFN" (for "no first name") in that field."
posted by vorfeed at 3:34 PM on January 24, 2011

Response by poster: Volokh also posted the links to Mitch I sent him. More mononymous people turning up in the comments there.
posted by saizai at 4:50 PM on January 24, 2011

Response by poster: If y'all know any other mononymous people, please point them to this: http://groups.google.com/group/mononymy
posted by saizai at 9:42 PM on January 25, 2011

Response by poster: Here's another sentinel value one might use for first names on forms: "Sir" :-)
posted by saizai at 9:49 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

be careful with that - depending on your jurisdiction, it may be illegal to use honorifics like that in a given name.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:27 PM on January 25, 2011

Response by poster: Why would it be illegal? Knighthood does not exist in the US. It's not personation of any office of the US government. Please cite a law or case otherwise if you know any.
posted by saizai at 12:11 AM on January 26, 2011

That's why I said "depending on your jurisdiction". I am not your lawyer, but in general the powers that be tend to frown upon jokey first names like "Senator", "Lord", "General", "President" and so forth. Contact your local Registry of Births, Deaths & Marriages (or USian equivalent) for any clarification you need on what pseudo-honorific first names may or may not be kosher where you live.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:35 AM on January 26, 2011

Yes, some of the articles you linked to above made the point that one of the few times courts would bother to intervene was when someone tried to change their name to an office or title. I think one of the Volokh articles talked the most about it? But I read them a couple days ago and don't recall for sure.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:48 AM on January 26, 2011

Response by poster: I explicitly would NOT be changing my name to "Sir". I'd be changing my name to a mononym. As such, my birth registry has no jurisdiction. (FWIW I was born in NY, commonlaw changed name in CA, and now live in IL.)

All I'm talking about here is using "Sir" in place of e.g. "NFN" as a sentinel value for databases that aren't capable of dealing with mononyms.
posted by saizai at 5:21 PM on January 26, 2011

Best to refer that question to a lawyer in your jurisdiction, sorry.

For what it's worth, as far as I recall, over here it's "illegal" to use false honorifics in your name, not so much in the sense that you'll be fined or thrown in jail, but that the Registry will simply say "Sorry, we can't accept this. Here's another form. Try again". As you point out, that's a different situation to filling in your name for your local amateur spearfishing club, where the member database is designed & maintained by the village idiot's imbecile cousin.

There may or may not be specific offenses about impersonating royalty or credentials, though - I can't remember, and it's a different jurisdiction to yours anyway.

(the greater part of me just thinks "why bother?" because somebody somewhere is bound to give you a level of grief over it, at the very least because they'll think you've stupidly put your title into the first name field)
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:14 PM on January 26, 2011

Response by poster: Honestly the only answer to "why bother?" I have is that I'd like a sentinel value that, while not really part of my name, doesn't make me totally cringe.

I could for instance use continue to use "Emrys" as my last name for the purposes of stupid databases. It is in fact my legally registered "doing business as" alias, which gives that some standing.

I'm not sure however if that's good enough for, say, Secure Flight (which IIRC does mandate binyms). And it's not really a sentinel value equivalent to "this isn't really the last name, it's just a standin" like NFN/NLN are.
posted by saizai at 10:17 PM on January 26, 2011

Response by poster: I'm considering adding an addendum to my petition, requesting that the court order that my name be represented as my legal alias / DBA, "Sai Emrys", in cases where databases are unable to correctly represent my true name, "Sai".

posted by saizai at 6:26 PM on January 28, 2011

Response by poster: UPDATE: I now have a court order and driver's license saying that I am mononymous. Whee!

posted by saizai at 6:33 PM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Also, I've compiled a bunch of relevant case law that should be helpful to anyone researching this in the future: http://saizai.com/namecases.zip

In particular I very strongly recommend Julia Shear Kushner's legal review, "The Right to Change One's Name", which is included therein as well as available at http://uclalawreview.org/pdf/57-1-7.pdf . It's very thorough in discussing all aspects of the issue, both social and legal.

I also strongly recommend that others who are mononymous in non-mononymic cultures (whether in practice or as recognized by courts) come join the group https://groups.google.com/group/mononymy - I found it extremely helpful to have people to talk to who've been through it before, so I knew what to expect at a more daily-pragmatic level.
posted by saizai at 7:30 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Final update from the OP:
Google Groups seems to have dropped the /groups redirect, so use this: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/mononymy

It's also linked @ http://s.ai/iaq.

Basically, it's worked out pretty well for me so far. I'm happy I made the change; there are occasional annoyances, but worth it to have a name I identify with.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 5:49 AM on April 10, 2015

Mod note: Further update from the OP:
The Google group is somewhat deprecated due to Google failing to notify mods about subscription requests and being bad at allowing non-Google email addresses.

Resources on mononymy, including the Google group as well as a more easily used Discord & Reddit, several articles, and a bunch of legal cases and law review articles, are now at https://s.ai/1
posted by taz (staff) at 10:54 PM on April 24, 2023

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