New Signature a Problem
May 16, 2011 7:51 AM   Subscribe

Is changing my signature a legal no-no/nightmare?

I have terrible handwriting. As in I care barely read it myself. My signature is even worse than that--the shape doesn't even have the same number of what one might laughingly call "ascenders" and "descenders" as my real name.

In the last few weeks, I've been taking up some calligraphy to try to improve my handwriting. ("Practical italic" from a variety of sources.) I'm not fast enough at it to use for all "real" purposes yet, so we'll see.

The question is: If I re-develop my signature from scratch, what hot water is that going to get me in? Does anyone actually check signatures anymore?

Not bank tellers and anyway I never write checks and rarely deposit them.

Checkout clerks almost never look at my credit card and in any case my signature is either not on some of them in the first place or worn off.

I'm sure I have a bunch of old papers (mortgage, etc) that I signed years ago. Does my current signature have to match those?

Is there a legal process for changing signatures like when you change your name? Or is it more like adopting a nickname where as long as you aren't trying to fool anyone and are clear what happened when anyone asks, pretty much anything goes?
posted by DU to Law & Government (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My brother had a tougher time getting through customs on a recent trip because the signature on his passport didn't match the one on his declaration form. He had also been experimenting with a new signature, and his new one was very different. You might not have this problem if your changes to your current signature are more subtle.
posted by OLechat at 7:54 AM on May 16, 2011

My answer to OLechat's brother's issue is to try to match signatures in that case. You're holding your passport so you can see what signature you used on it, so why not sign the declaration form in the same way? You don't have to have one and only one signature. I have a nice version for legal forms and the like, and something more akin to a scribble for credit card receipts.
posted by cabingirl at 8:02 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

My signature changed in my twenties (I had a job where I had to sign for a lot of deliveries, and I got lazy) and I've never had a problem. I always write "Please see ID" on the back of my credit cards anyway.

If you're concerned, every now and then practice your "old" signature. Or renew your drivers' license or passport with your new signature and keep an old one so you have an official record of both.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:04 AM on May 16, 2011

Your signature does not need to be legible at all or match up with your printed name--it could be random squiggles and it wouldn't matter one iota, so long as it is *consistent*. So given that your current "problem" is not really a problem, and your proposed solution could, in fact, introduce problems, I'm not sure I would attempt a drastic change.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 8:04 AM on May 16, 2011

Once in an incredibly blue moon I have a cashier that checks my signature against the one on the back of my credit card. But here's what's weird, my signature on the back of my credit card rubbed off ages ago, yet they always approve it anyway.

I can't think of a single thing I've done in the last 20 years that truly required, with verification, my signature to be my signature. That certainly goes for credit card purchases, but everything else as well. In my opinion, you have zero to worry about.

On this general subject, this prank/experiment is worth a look.
posted by mcstayinskool at 8:08 AM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

Your signature evolves over time, anyway. My sig today is very different than my sig 30 years ago. It's much more "I don't care."
posted by Thorzdad at 8:09 AM on May 16, 2011

Best answer: I am an attorney, but I am not your attorney. This is not legal advice. You should consult a competent attorney in your jurisdiction.

In general, a signature is simply a physical memorialization or manifestation of assent rather than a form of identification. In most cases it need not even be a person's name; a mark or cross can suffice. However, the use of signature comparisons for identification does come up in many contexts (e.g. forgery cases, authenticating wills & petitions).

I always write "Please see ID" on the back of my credit cards anyway.

This is not a good idea.
posted by jedicus at 8:10 AM on May 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

I pity anyone who needs to decipher even a sentence of my handwriting. Fortunately, it doesn't come up very much.

It seems to me that handwritten signatures as a means of establishing a persons identity are becoming increasingly absurd. Many credit card companies accept (and prefer) a pin # rather than a signature nowadays.

Unless you're signing for ownership of a house or something, I doubt anyone would look twice at a change in signature style provided you've got some kind of secondary means of verifying your identity.
posted by chmmr at 8:11 AM on May 16, 2011

The only time my current signature gets carefully scrutinized against a filed copy is when I sign the the form at my bank that allows access to my safe deposit box. The easy fix here would be to file a new signature card with the bank, which I've had to do several times over the years as my signature ages.
posted by jamaro at 8:21 AM on May 16, 2011

Some banks use signature cards to have something with which to compare your signature. If you're intent on changing your signature, I would make sure you have everything important updated to the new one. For example, when someone's name changes (marriage, divorce, etc.) their signature obviously changes as well. So it's not unheard of to have your signature change (and with the unreadable scribbles some people do, non-experts probably can't tell the difference between Jane Doe and Jane Smith)...but you might raise a few eyebrows if you're doing it purely for cosmetic reasons.
posted by asciident at 8:25 AM on May 16, 2011

I have neat handwriting and a signature that is sloppy as hell (like Metroid Baby, I had a job right out of college that required me to sign a lot of stuff). There is nothing inconsistent about this. I would not deliberately try to make your signature more "legible" if I were you.
posted by Sara C. at 8:28 AM on May 16, 2011

My signature is basically a horizontal line with a bare squiggle. An X would be slightly more complicated. It changed after getting divorced (lots of papers to sign.) I think I might have had to show ID in some instances initially where I otherwise would not have, but eventually I got a new driver's license with the updated signature on it.

I think lots of people's signatures change significantly and sometimes all at once. I don't think it's any big deal.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:31 AM on May 16, 2011

Interestingly, I think it sounds like most people's signatures have devolved into caveman signatures and you're actually going in the opposite direction.

Given that, maybe you'd also want to invest in a custom rubber stamp, in case you get bored with calligraphy you can still crank that sucker out five years from now.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:35 AM on May 16, 2011

You'd be surprised, the bank has called up my grandparents when a signature looked funny, just in order to verify. (Wachovia, in case you're wondering.) Nothing bad happened, they just had to confirm that it was intentional. What I would take away from that is that if you want to change your signature then do it at a time in your life when you're not signing anything terribly important and you can pay in cash if push comes to shove. Once you've used it for a while it's unlikely to be an issue.
posted by anaelith at 8:39 AM on May 16, 2011

Recently, someone wrote into Dear Prudie to ask this same question. (ctrl+f "ALTERING MY SIGNATURE")

There, as here, the consensus seems to be that it's no big deal. As Prudie points out, if someone questions you, you can always re-sign a document with your old signature.
posted by lesli212 at 8:41 AM on May 16, 2011

I radically changed my signature about 15 years ago and have never once, not once, been questioned about it. Occasionally I get a reminder to update a signature card somewhere, usually a financial institution or driver's license bureau, and I do it. Never got the impression that even that was a big deal. I'd say sign any way you like and don't worry about it.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 8:44 AM on May 16, 2011

As far as legibility goes, I had a lawyer friend once tell me that illegible signatures are better because on those rare occasions when they want your signature to match your name as written (includng middle initial or name, for example), having an illegible signature means they won't ask you to go back and add the missing element because you can't tell whether or not it is there in the first place. A minor thing, but still an advantage.
posted by TedW at 8:51 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

As a data point, I once had to sign a very important legal document witnessed by a federal official. My normal signature is pretty illegible, and doesn't really represent my full name. For the purposes of this document, however, the official insisted that I sign it in a way that would legibly represent my full (incl. middle - that I never use) name. He was completely unperturbed by the fact that this signature would look absolutely nothing like any signature of mine before or since.
posted by kickingtheground at 8:55 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: In general, a signature is simply a physical memorialization or manifestation of assent rather than a form of identification.

I'm glad you said this because I was theorizing something similar. It came out looking stupid though, so I erased it. The basic idea was that a signature is only really there so you yourself know that you must have signed it.

In that model, as long as I don't have so many signatures I forget which are mine and which are forgeries I should be OK.
posted by DU at 9:00 AM on May 16, 2011

When was the last time anyone actually looked at someone else's John Hancock? Between all the digital capture tools that do anything but make a signature look good and the lack of anyone really looking, my signatures have gone to pot. I can't remember the last check I wrote, and the only place I sign my name these days are places where people wouldn't have a 'real' signature to check against.

The simple answer is you have little to worry about. These days it's primarily an aesthetic attached to a physical document. Give it 10 years and we'll see how many actual, physical, paper documents people are signing.
posted by chrisinseoul at 9:03 AM on May 16, 2011

I once went to the bank to pick up a banker's draft and my signature had changed drastically since I'd opened my bank account and they made me update my signature there and then - not helpful as I was in a hurry. But that's the only time anybody has ever challenged my signature. My normal signature looks nothing like it does on my passport, on my driving license and on my credit cards...not that the signatures on any of these look alike either. And yes, since I started to have to sign lots of stuff for work it has deteriorated a lot. So no, wouldn't expect it to be a problem. Question is why you would want to make it more legible though.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:04 AM on May 16, 2011

Tellers and retail bankers do compare signatures, and it possibly happens more often then you think. Some banks may still compare your signature to the original "signature card" you signed when you opened your account. When I was a supervisor at a smallish-retail bank, tellers would take anything they were unsure about to me. Signature was once factor in deciding if I would approve a transaction or not. If it didn't match, I would ask for more identification. (This likely varies bank to bank. At the regional bank I worked for, your signature was the primary means of identifying a client.)

As you say, this would rarely affect you, but it does happen. You might want to ask the bank if you could do a new signature card.
posted by spaltavian at 9:36 AM on May 16, 2011

I live in Oregon and therefore vote by mail.

I just received an official letter saying then my signature did not match with the one on the most recent ballot and therefore my vote was invalidated and my voter registration suspended until I filed a new signature. Whoops!

So yes, sometimes it does matter.
posted by divide_by_cucumber at 9:40 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I got an Oregon letter too. I signed the form with the same vague scribble as I did the last time, same as the one on my ballot envelope, and I hope they accept it this time.
posted by bink at 11:14 AM on May 16, 2011

Response by poster: Yes, it can be problematic.

I had that happen once too. My credit card was unsigned, to the clerk stopped the transaction to tell me that. I just took the card and signed it. After an askance look she shrugged and took it.
posted by DU at 2:18 PM on May 16, 2011

I had to sign at the bank to get a cashier's check for my house closing. It had been years since I opened the account, and when I signed, the teller merely looked at it and said, "Would you like to try again?"

I signed the old way, and then went to customer service and did a new signature card (old signature, new signature, date). It's certainly not impossible that someone would give you trouble about it, but I think something like my experience is more likely. As long as you can still physically produce the old signature, you should be fine.
posted by emumimic at 2:47 PM on May 16, 2011

Dear Oregonians, please contest that bullshit.
My credit cards are signed, with the added text, Please ask for photo ID. Do not leave cards unsigned. Credit card fraud is massive and expensive, and the credit card companies pass it right along. When I had a retail business, I found credit card companies to be quite lax about fraud.
posted by theora55 at 4:53 PM on May 16, 2011

I've been writing random words on my credit card and check signature lines for at least 3 years. Sometimes the word is my "vocab work of the day" sometimes it's the item I'm purchasing "Dogfood!"

Haven't received a call or letter about once. Food for thought.

posted by oblio_one at 5:13 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been writing random words on my credit card and check signature lines for at least 3 years.

I cannot believe I'd forgotten this. My ex-husband used to routinely write "Penis Smith". Hundreds of receipts. Oh, the awkward memories. (But no one ever said anything.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:55 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Out of disgust, I signed all the documents for the short-sale of my house simply "X". I checked with an attorney beforehand and was assured that making a mark on paper with the intent of it being your signature legally qualified as a "signature". The sale went through, nobody ever asked any questions about my signature.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 6:59 AM on May 17, 2011

Around ten years ago, my mom had double carpal tunnel surgery - both wrists at the same time. I started writing her checks for her then. I still write checks for her. In 10 years we've only been challenged on it twice (when the cashier saw me sign it and Mom showed her ID) and both times they ended up taking the check anyways.

Still, we joke about the day that the bank will call her up because she signed a check for once and it doesn't match my signature of her name.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:48 AM on May 18, 2011

I started openly using my middle name a few years ago, and added it to my signature. I did get a phone call from a county elections department over an absentee ballot where my new signature didn't match the one they had on file. But it was a simple matter to register the change.

I have also been known to sign my surname in Cyrillic. My cursive being as illegible as it is, no one can tell the difference anyway.
posted by eritain at 4:07 PM on November 7, 2011

« Older Empty net syndrome   |   Washing a Ball Cap Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.