I'm trying to weigh the pros/cons of changing my surname
March 21, 2013 9:57 AM   Subscribe

Should I change my name, and if I do, when is the best time to do it?

I'm not getting married, but my current surname bothers me. It's a hyphenated name, and a lot of people don't know how to deal with it. They'll lop off the first half or the second half, and this can lead to complications if my name has to be entered in a database or something (especially if said database does not allow hyphens). Also, because it's hyphenated, it's very long, hard to spell, and not easy to remember. As a digital artist, I want people to be able to remember me and find me and my portfolio via Google, and this can be difficult for the aforementioned reasons. Several times I've had old acquaintances and coworkers try to search for me online but fail because they look for the wrong thing, which can delay their message. It might seem petty but it's something that has been bothering me intensely for a very long time. I find myself getting frustrated just looking at my name.

On the other hand, will changing my name will just result in a bunch of other complications? I'm currently a college student, I depend on financial aid, and I find myself getting paranoid that the name change will result in some kind of complication with regards to FAFSA and my school. I already have enough issues with them messing up my address changes! Also, I'll have to go back to all my old schools to get my name retroactively changed, contact my old employers/coworkers, and all my other acquaintances to let them know of my name change, because I don't want to be searching for a job and have there be a mismatch during background/reference checks. I'm especially worried that when people are skimming over my resume/cover letters that they'll overlook a note about a name change (is that even the appropriate time to make that note?).

I have considered having a "pen name" for my artwork and just not legally change my name, but the issue is that most of my "regular" jobs use me for my artistic services (like art for properties while working at a real estate agency, or doing scientific illustrations/diagrams while working as a lab tech). Would it be weird to have my legal name on my resume but refer to a portfolio with a different name?

Any advice would be appreciated.
posted by picklenickle to Human Relations (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I find myself getting paranoid that the name change will result in some kind of complication with regards to FAFSA and my school.

I can almost guarantee you that it will. I really, really would not fuck around with FAFSA because they take their sweet time correcting any errors, regardless of who made them. I believe at one point they took a year to cut me a refund check for my tuition -- I don't even remember what the issue was at this point -- which I ended up having to pay up front. I'm not sure how much financial aid you get, but if you can't cover them leaving you hanging, then don't legally change your name until you don't need to deal with them anymore.
posted by griphus at 10:07 AM on March 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would wait until you're done school and all the FAFSA business to do it. In the meantime I would start transitioning to your new chosen name. Introduce yourself that way, use it when in relation to your art, etc. I'm not sure of the legal ramifications of this, but considering I know of multiple that go by names other than their legal name and they haven't had their name legally changes... I'm going to guess it is fine.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:11 AM on March 21, 2013

I honestly can't give advice on whether to change your name or not.

I can tell you that if you do change your name, make sure you give yourself a leeway of 6 months following it to resolve complications.

In other words, if you are planning on travelling internationally or managing some large financial transactions (such as applying for a loan or purchasing a house), do that first. Change your name following the resolution of those trips or transactions. Having to correct financial errors or dealing with international customs because your legal name is different than your name of record in a system or passport can be a large pain in the ass.
posted by seppyk at 10:11 AM on March 21, 2013

I changed my long hyphenated name down to just one of the names. Think Robertson-Redmond changed to Robertson. It's still a tad long, but so much less aggravating then when it didn't fit on any forms ever. The only time it comes up now is when forms ask if I have any aliases, and it's usually just the most official of government forms that do that. I changed my name when I was fourteen, so I can't give much advice on the best time. The only advice I have is to be real gentle with your parents about the change, particularly if you keep one name but not the other. (My sister kept her hyphenated name until she got married and changed to her husband's name then. It caused way fewer hurt feelings but was a pain in the butt for much longer.) I am in favor of easier names (and I think most of us who have dealt with unwieldy ones are). Good luck!
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:15 AM on March 21, 2013

You can start using a new name professionally, on the web and in your personal life, without making it a legal name change. I know an artist who goes by a different last name in her professional life because there was already a well established person in the same field when she started out, but she never legally changed her name. You don't need a government form to print up business cards!
posted by Dynex at 10:21 AM on March 21, 2013 [16 favorites]

I was you a few years ago. I legally changed my last name to something completely different from my birth last name, and it wasn't because I was getting married - I just didn't like it. I expected a lot of frustrations, but I actually didn't have a problem. You'll want to carry around your order of name change for a while at first just in case, but overall it was pretty simple. Turns out, name changes happen all the time.

Changed my name on my bank accounts, lease, and with my school etc. simply by calling them and telling them, then mailing or faxing over the order of name change when they requested it. Other things, like passports, I'd wait on if you're planning any travel. I didn't run into any issues with the FAFSA, though I changed my name a good half year or so before I filed my taxes so the name I used matched my new one.

In job searches, when it gets to the point of background or reference checks, just note that you used to be known as "picklenickle oldlastname." Truthfully, the most trouble I ever ran into were people who had a hard time grasping that I changed my name -and- was unmarried. "What do you mean you just up and changed your name because you 'didn't like it'?!"
posted by sephira at 10:40 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have changed my surname twice -- once to my same-sex partner's name, and after we split, to a completely different name from hers or from my maiden name.

1) I'm not in school, but I do have student loans, and when I changed my surname it has not mattered a whit -- my old name is still on those loans and I just keep on making payments. This is with direct loans in my name and not parental or FAFSA loans.

2) Similarly with many other things. I have a couple of accounts (toll road EZ tag, for instance) still with the old name. As long as I pay them, they don't seem to care.

3) It was really fairly little fuss to get things changed. You'll want to have the paperwork from the name change, the "court order." There's a fee for that and you'll have to get fingerprinted and visit your courthouse for a hearing. Then you take your court order to your bank and to the Social Security office and to the DMV if you have a driver's license. I had all my everythings squared away within a month.

4) On your resume you can put "as Firstname Oldlastname" to make it clear what someone should search for, and all background check forms will ask what other names you've used or worked under. No big deal.

On the whole, I'd ask your financial aid officer how difficult it will be to change your name on those accounts, but once you have your Social Security number in your new name, everything should be easy peasy lemon squeezy.

Good luck, and enjoy your new name! I love mine and I'm so glad I did it.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:45 AM on March 21, 2013

Oh, and as for transitioning to a new name without changing it legally:

In Texas (not sure about other states) you can legally technically change your name, as long as you're not doing it for purposes of fraud, by just starting to use a new name. However, explaining that to the bank probably won't go well. EVERYONE wants to see the court order (get a few extra official copies while you're at the courthouse). Hence paying the fee, getting the fingerprints, and doing the court order if you'd like to use your new name in all aspects of your life.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:48 AM on March 21, 2013

I changed my name too, and never got an order from a court or anything, and it was incredibly simple. To do this in the U.S., you just start using the new name, and then once you can demonstrate that it's your new name (through mail you've received, a library card, minor things) you can start the process of changing over everything else. This was shockingly easy, and I've never regretted doing it. The only places where I had trouble were in changing my name on frequent flier accounts with the airlines. Seriously -- no trouble with passport, driver's license, college degrees, social security, nothing. It's free and it's easy and it's wonderfully liberating.

Here's the order I did it in:

1. I wrote myself a letter, using my new name, and mailed it to myself.
2. Using this, I got a library card in my new name.
3. Using this, I went to the Social Security administration and changed my name there, and got a new SS card.
4. Using this, I changed my driver's license.
5. Between the DL and the SS card, I had no trouble changing everything else, including student loans, financial aid forms, credit cards, passports (in two countries), degrees, medical records, you name it.

It is simply not the case that everyone will want to see a court order. NO ONE ever asked me for one. Ever. I'm sure if I'd offered to show them one, they would have looked at it, but its absence was never an issue.

As far as getting references from old employers, I'd (a) send a letter to the people you want to use as references explaining your name change and that you'll be using them as a reference, and (b) tell people who will be getting a reference on you that you've changed your name and informed your references, but that they might forget.

Good luck, and pick a good one so you don't have to do this twice! Or, on the other hand, do it twice. It's really not that big a deal.
posted by Capri at 10:53 AM on March 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

I changed my last name in college. I had an impossible to spell name.
I went to my local courthouse, met with a judge and then got new ID's.
There was some work associated with it but I'm glad that I did.
FAFSA was fine
Good luck.
posted by ibakecake at 10:54 AM on March 21, 2013

It is simply not the case that everyone will want to see a court order. NO ONE ever asked me for one. Ever. I'm sure if I'd offered to show them one, they would have looked at it, but its absence was never an issue.

Obviously you did it, but this is in principle not the case. Social Security wants a court order, for example. It's easier to change a US passport with court order in hand, though not necessary if you changed enough other stuff long enough ago. My state requires a court order to change a driver's license. (Actually, I think you could apply for an exception in my state if you could shower them with changed documents, but they want the court order.)
posted by hoyland at 11:12 AM on March 21, 2013

Yes, the bank/SS office/DMV wanted a court order and would not accept anything less. YMMV.
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:40 AM on March 21, 2013

Name change rules seem to be very state-specific. I know my library asks for two forms of ID, one picture and a letter must be a utility bill proving your address.

If I was concerned about messing up loans I would use a pen name online for now, and once you get out of school look into changing it to that pen name.
posted by Bunglegirl at 11:56 AM on March 21, 2013

As a former university administrator, I vote for picking a name and using it for your art, etc., now, but not legally changing it until you're done with school.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:36 PM on March 21, 2013

Hey, I know this!

I think what you want is "Doing Business As distinction", or DBA, where you stay who you are, but you have a business name for purposes of your work, if that makes sense.

So, if you were Lois Lane-Kent, DBA Superman's Hot Wife, you would still be Lois Lane-Kent in your private life, for school, to the Federal government and all that. But for your professional dealings, etc, you would be known as Superman's Hot Wife. And, presumably, register that domain name and have that site for people interested in your design work.
posted by misha at 1:04 PM on March 21, 2013

I legally changed my last name (from my dad's to my mom's, since my mom raised me) when I was 18, during the summer between one year of college and the next. I was getting lots of financial aid from multiple sources and the name change caused no issues with FA or with anything else. The only time I ever needed the court order was to change official documents.

Since your name is bothering you that much day-to-day, it sounds like you need more than a DBA and the time to change it is sooner rather than later.
posted by kalapierson at 2:10 PM on March 21, 2013

I legally changed my surname when I was sixteen. I'm in Australia, so my experience will be a little different than yours, but it wasn't much of a hassle. People change their names all the time for all kinds of reasons and institutions are used to dealing with it.

Generally, once you change everything over to your new name, the only entity that will care about your old name is the government. I've had to whip out my change of name document maybe four times in twenty years and it's always been for government stuff (passport, etc). Keep yours with your little bundle of important papers and you'll be fine.

Also, regarding this:
I'll have to go back to all my old schools to get my name retroactively changed

You don't need to have everything re-issued in your new name. If you need to prove you have a qualification, you provide the document in the old name and a copy of your change of name document.

Personally, it was a great decision for me and I've never regretted it.
posted by Georgina at 4:46 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm in the midst of changing my name right now (both surname and middle name). The actual process isn't so bad (particularly here in Massachusetts, since except in odd circumstances, you don't even have to get a court date—it's all done via paperwork), although it's time consuming and tedious. It's been more difficult to get my job to update my E-mail address than it was to get my SS card, state ID, credit card, etc. I have no experience dealing with FAFSA during a name change, though.

As for timing, although I'm not in the same situation as you, there's a similarity. I knew I'd be getting married just after finishing my grad program, and I wanted to use my new name professionally (to avoid getting my name out there and then changing it drastically several months later). I started using that name on my professional website and the connected Twitter account at least six months before my wedding (which was, in turn, another several months before I really began the name change process), as well as for an interview I was asked to do. LinkedIn I changed a little bit later, just so that my classmates would know who I was. You could consider going that route and then go through the actual process after school. When you're using references for something, just be sure to give them a heads up that you're going by New Name professionally now.
posted by cellar door at 4:53 AM on March 22, 2013

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