I need to get my first passport, but there's a problem with my name...
July 18, 2011 12:08 PM   Subscribe

I'm applying for my first U.S. passport but I'm afraid I might have trouble verifying my identity. Specific details inside.

So the problem is, my parents got divorced when I was an infant, and my mother reverted back to her maiden name. Because she had sole custody, she used her maiden name as my last name. Unfortunately she did not make this a legal change for me, so while I've been known as Palomar Jones my whole life, my "real" name is Palomar Smith. The sole document that shows my name as Palomar Smith is my birth certificate -- all other documents (school records from kindergarten to diploma, immunizations, my entire work history, my driver's license and Social Security card) show my name as Palomar Jones. I have been using this name and only this name for my entire life, nearly 34 years.

I am applying for my first passport,and I'm concerned that this name issue is going to cause a major headache. I've dug through the State Department's passport information websites and have found nothing that definitely clears this matter up for me, nor has extensive Googling made me feel more sure about what I should do, so I'm turning to you, fellow MeFites. I have all of my school records, my immuno records, copies of documents like leases and utility bills in my name, tax returns from the past decade, paystubs going back a year from my current employer (who had to put me through a background check before hiring me)... will this be enough to prove that I am who I say I am, and get me my passport?

I'm willing to go through the hassle of legally changing my name, but I'm hoping I won't have to do that -- any advice, especially if you've been through this passport issue yourself, would be greatly appreciated.

(Extra details: I am in the U.S., I am a citizen as were both my parents, you are not my lawyer or State Dept rep or government-sanctioned passport consultant.)
posted by palomar to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
We had a similar problem with my sister's birthdate. A call to our congressmen cleared things up.
posted by snickerdoodle at 12:19 PM on July 18, 2011

I'd highly recommend contacting your state/local rep. He or she, or his or her office, will clear that up for you right-quick.
posted by juniperesque at 12:20 PM on July 18, 2011

Agree with the others that a chat with someone in the State Department should clear this up. If you're like me and hate using phones, I highly recommend going to a non-Post Office location to apply. (Well, I recommend that regardless of any potential application problems.) I've gone with friends to Post Offices to apply for passports, and they've all been treated brusquely. When I applied for mine just a few months ago, I went to a county records office. (If you look at state.gov they'll give you a list of passport application locations.) A few issues came up with my application and, rather than making me jump through hoops myself, the county employee made a few quick phone calls for me and cleared everything up.
posted by phunniemee at 12:28 PM on July 18, 2011

It's odd you were even able to get a driver's license in the "wrong" name without a valid birth certificate.
posted by smackfu at 12:47 PM on July 18, 2011

I'm going to agree with snickerdoodle that a call to your Congressional rep is the way to go for the answer.

For example, you're in Seattle so let's say Jim McDermott is your Congressman. He has a section of his website devoted to helping you with a federal agency issue (which the US Dept of State is), including passport help. He even apparently had a staffer dedicated to passport support at one point.

If your Congressperson isn't Jim McDermott, look for a section of his/her website called "Constituent Services."

Your problem, the way I see it, is that your birth certificate (your first proof of US identity) says one thing and your Social Security card (your second proof of US identity) says another. It doesn't seem like there's much way around you filing an official name change form to permanently become Palomar Jones.

It's not about whether you can convince the government that you "are" Palomar Jones for the purposes of gaining a passport... it's that the minute the discrepancy becomes official, and it becomes known that you're arguably both Jones and Smith in various legal realms, you're likely going to be made to resolve it one way or the other.

It would be different if you didn't have to send a birth certificate in to obtain a passport (I presume that's how you've been able to get by without this coming up prior to now? I assumed one had to show a birth certificate to get a SSN.), but here you are.

Good luck, hope it's not too much of a bureaucratic whipping.
posted by pineapple at 12:48 PM on July 18, 2011

I am curious as to how you got a Social Security Card in a name other than your legal one. Are you sure she never did a legal name change? In my state, you file to change your name, (which is not at all complicated procedure) then once that is granted you can apply to change the birth certificate. Some states used to allow changes by "common usage," i.e, you could just start using a new name, but I don't know if the feds would accept that in these times.

Seconding that this is a question for the folks at the passport office.
posted by lawhound at 12:49 PM on July 18, 2011

According to the Department of State's website, if you have a driver's license and social security card with Jones, you should be okay to get a passport as Jones.

That being said, I had a similar situation as you growing up--the last name I used my whole life was not my legal last name--I eventually changed it because it became a huge issue--and wound up with a valid passport with my former legal name. I spoke with someone at the closest passport agency who told me that even though my passport was still valid and i had documentation of my name change, I may still run into problems using it.

This is a stupid question, but are you sure that Smith IS your legal last name? I am not sure how other states work, but I could not get a driver's license or social security card with anything but the name on my birth certificate. I managed to have medical, school and bank records with my assumed last name, though. (on preview, what everyone else said).
posted by inertia at 12:52 PM on July 18, 2011

smackfu, when I applied for my learner's permit I proved my identity with prior records (school records, immunization records), plus my parental guardian was there to back me up.

lawhound, my mother applied for my Social Security card on my behalf, because she was applying for welfare benefits for me when I was an infant and a SSN was required for me in order to get those benefits.

I am not 100% sure that my mother didn't legally change my name, but I'm assuming she didn't because my birth record is still under my father's last name and knowing my mother she most likely would have gone all the way through the name change process including updating my birth record. Also, doing a legal name change in California requires notifying the other parent and posting notice in local newspapers for 4 weeks prior to the change being completed -- since she was hiding from my abusive father I doubt she would have bothered with legality. (In addition, it's kind of a weird family joke that I'm "in hiding" by not using my legal last name. If it had been legally changed when I was a child, I don't think they'd make that joke, you know?)

pineapple - thanks for the links, Jim McDermott is actually my congressman so I guess I'll start with his office and work my way through the system. (Incidentally, it looks like the specific passport support staffer is just for those people who would need expedited passport service due to international travel happening within two weeks -- because I don't have proof that I'm traveling within two weeks, I can't use the expedited service per the Dept of State's website.)
posted by palomar at 1:23 PM on July 18, 2011

Have you submitted your application yet? I would do that and see what they ask for. When I applied for my first passport (in 1996), I had a similar problem. My birth certificate lists my last name as my father's last name, but since he left us when I was about four, my mom started using her name (not maiden, they were never married) as our last name. When I applied for the passport (in person, since I needed it expedited), they asked that I submit proof I had been using my mom's last name for five years or more. I submitted school records, work pay stubs, etc, that went back far beyond five years. They approved it with the additional proof.

The whole legal name change is still confusing to me, and since my mom isn't here anymore I can't ask if she went to court or what process she used. But she did get a replacement Social Security card in my new name when I was pretty young.

So my advice would be to gather your paperwork, possibly including evidence of using the name for several years, and go in person if possible. They will tell you if you need more evidence. I'm not sure why you would need to call elected politicians before first hearing what the passport agency has to say.
posted by JenMarie at 1:53 PM on July 18, 2011

My brother has a friend who was born in Australia to a U.S. citizen and a New Zealand citizen, who later divorced, and who has joint citizenship in all three countries plus the Phillipines for some family reason that confuses me. He has four different legal names - and the name on his U.S. passport is different than the one on his Australian birth certificate. It may be a hassle, but it's not unprecedented.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 1:59 PM on July 18, 2011

My girlfriend works for the state department in the passport office. You can call the state department at 1-877-487-2778 to ask about passport documentation requirements, or email them at NPIC@state.gov. I presume you found the passport website, and their local office at

Seattle Passport Agency
Henry Jackson Federal Building
915 Second Avenue,
Suite 992
Seattle, WA 98174-1091

You can certainly create fake documents saying you're traveling in two weeks to get your congressmen or the state department's support more quickly -- they don't have a good way to verify your travel documentation. This is what the passport expediting companies do.
posted by garlic at 2:03 PM on July 18, 2011

I've been through more "adventures" with the passport office than I can succinctly capture here.

All the advice above looks good. The one document that hasn't been mentioned that could be a major accelerator for you in this process is the original copy of a brief notarized statement by your mother describing what she did vis-a-vis your name when you were an infant. Include a xeroxed copy of HER passport just for good measure if that's possible. A document like this was ultimately my "golden ticket," and the notarized part was key (and something I never could have anticipated).

I'm confident you'll get it, it's just a matter of reducing your hassle/time as much as possible in the process. Best of luck!
posted by mauvest at 2:27 PM on July 18, 2011

The one document that hasn't been mentioned that could be a major accelerator for you in this process is the original copy of a brief notarized statement by your mother describing what she did vis-a-vis your name when you were an infant.

Yeah, the unfortunate thing is that I no longer have any contact with my mother -- we haven't spoken in nearly a decade and she cut off the rest of the family long before that and no one even knows where she lives, let alone how to contact her. And I'm estranged from the rest of my blood relatives, too, which doesn't make this any easier, that's for sure. :)

I called my congressman's office and spoke to his passport liason -- what she told me is that I'm going to have to go down to a passport acceptance agency in person and wait for them to reject my application, then I can contact her for help.

I also found this link when I was doing a bit more searching: http://www.us-passport-service-guide.com/can-i-get-a-passport-if-the-name-on-my-birth-certificate-does-not-match-the-name-on-my-drivers-license-and-social-secrity-card.html

The affidavit form that's mentioned in that link is familiar-sounding -- when I was 16 I was supposed to go to France for the summer, and my grandmother called the passport help line to find out how I could get a passport with this name issue hanging over me, and the person she spoke with at that time told her she'd just have to fill out that form and present it along with my backup documentation (the school records, etc.). I ended up not pursuing the trip any further due to financial reasons, but it sounds like this affidavit thing might end up being the solution. I guess I'll try my luck with my current ID and my backup documents and see what happens.

Thanks, everyone, for the helpful suggestions -- I'll try to get into a passport office next week and will update with results for future Google searchers needing passport help. :)
posted by palomar at 2:48 PM on July 18, 2011

Palomar, sorry to have jumped to conclusions there. My apologies.

I'd still recommend that you write a statement that attests to the key facts, then get that notarized and bring it with you to the passport office along with your other supporting documentation (and you've got all the right stuff, truly).
posted by mauvest at 3:01 PM on July 18, 2011

It might be easier and faster to have your name change made official, but perhaps you have another family member who could attest to the facts of your last name situation?
posted by vespabelle at 3:16 PM on July 18, 2011

I have the exact same last name situation as you (different name on birth certificate than on everything else) and had no problem getting a passport. I've had it for over 10 years now, so I don't remember exactly what (if any) extra forms I had to submit but I don't remember it being even a little bit of a problem.
posted by grapesaresour at 4:10 PM on July 18, 2011

I'm willing to go through the hassle of legally changing my name...

If you are in King County, the "hassle" you are referring to consists of two forms you can print at home, $150, and quite literally five minutes in court (hint: there are no queues at the Shoreline courthouse and parking there's easier than downtown).
posted by halogen at 4:18 PM on July 18, 2011

halogen, the name change takes 6-8 weeks to process once the court approves it, and then I would need to contact my birth county in California to request an amendment to the name on my birth record, and once that's approved by the county court there it takes another 12 weeks for the change to process.

6-8 weeks plus 12 weeks before I could apply for my passport, not figuring in the legwork of getting things notarized and finding time in my work schedule to go to court in the first place, and given that I work in Redmond and don't own a car... yeah, dude, it's kind of a hassle. :)
posted by palomar at 4:21 PM on July 18, 2011

I got a passport (post 9/11) with an affidavit and a YMCA gym membership card. I'd been mugged, and had literally no identification other than the gym card. My Social Security card does not have my current last name. I went in person to the passport office with my father. He signed the affidavit, and they gave me a passport within an hour.

Important for you: You only must have known the person signing the affidavit for 2 years. It does not have to be a parent. Information about this is on the travel.state.gov website, under Secondary Evidence of Identification.
posted by Houstonian at 5:38 PM on July 18, 2011

palomar, nope. Changed mine last Friday, already have a new WA ID and pending expedited passport. My certificate of naturalization was issued to a completely different name, but was accepted just fine in conjunction with the name change order I got on Friday (it takes six weeks to record with the county registrar which doesn't concern you or Federal i.e. passport-issuing authorities). You don't have to officially change the name on your birth certificate as long as you have the name change order with you.
posted by halogen at 5:40 PM on July 18, 2011

As someone who helped a few people through legal name changes in California, most people never change their birth certificates and it's, for the most part, unnecessary. You can apply for the new passport with your old birth certificate and your Name Change Court Decree. Cite.

Go here and fill out the NC-100 and any other forms. You only have to publish your intent in one paper and it's hardly wide-reaching. The paper my friends picked due to the price was some rich community's newsletter. If you have any questions about the process, feel free to message me.
posted by avagoyle at 8:37 PM on July 18, 2011

Oh, and if you do legally change your name, get at least three copies of the Name Change Decree. A friend of mine boarded several planes after 9/11 with her passport in her old name, the ticket in her new, and the Name Change Decree proving that she went by both names.
posted by avagoyle at 8:45 PM on July 18, 2011

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