You can call me Al -- as long as it's legal
January 6, 2006 9:23 AM   Subscribe

What does "your legal name" really mean?

My husband and I named our son Firstname Middlename Lastname. He goes by Middlename. This is because my husband's name is Firstname SameMiddleInitial and my name is Firstnamea. It was really important to my husband to continue a family naming tradition that goes back four generations and I felt that use of the middle name (which starts with the same letter but is a different name) would really help.

However, when we go to banks and doctors offices, they insist that we use our son's legal name. They want him to be Firstname. They say that the middle name is just a nickname. Prior to naming our son, our research suggested that it is perfectly legal to use either your first or middle name and, in fact, you can use any name you want so long as it isn't for fraud.

I think some of the medical and financial people think our son's middle name is a nickname. They don't understand that it is as legal as his first name. When they say his name has to match his papers, I don't see how J. Quentin Smith is any different from John Q. Smith (e.g.).

Is there anything to back this up from a legal standpoint? The biggest challenge is keeping our mail and appointments straight. It's hard enough to keep my husband and my stuff separate and we have different last names. But getting stuff made out to Firstname Lastname is confusing.

Can anyone clarify what "legal name" means? We live in Canada, but other jurisdictions might have useful info.
posted by acoutu to Law & Government (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The legal name for Canadians is defined as the name by which they were registered at birth, or that name which they individual have assumed via a name change.
posted by Jairus at 9:26 AM on January 6, 2006

Man, I cannot type today.

...or the name which they have assumed via a name change.
posted by Jairus at 9:27 AM on January 6, 2006

Frankly, what they really want is the 'canonical' name for your son - as long as it's the same name that your insurance/government payments are going to expect, and that appears on any identification you have for them, they're unlikely to care.

They're mainly just trying to avoid problems with the insurance company calling them and asking "Who's this Middlename Smith guy? He's not registered as a dependent...".

Pick one set of answers you're going to give to _everyone_who asks for first/middle/last name for your son, and give it everywhere - and you'll be set.
posted by bemis at 9:37 AM on January 6, 2006

My boyfriend grew up in a similar situation as your son. Once he hit university, it was too complicated for him to say "Actually, I go by middlename." So since then he's gone by firstname.

But his family still calls him middlename.
posted by k8t at 9:41 AM on January 6, 2006

You named your child identically to his father - indeed, identically to both of his parents, if I'm reading your post right - and you complain about name confusion? Come on now.

There's nothing wrong, legally, with using any name you want, so long as it's not for fraud. But in the end, your name is what people call you, and that's their choice, not yours. Canadian health care people are going to have you in their database under whatever name is on your health card. Want to change what doctors call you? Change the health card.

The banking regime has some odd identity laws too. They are legally obligated to open accounts only in the legal names of individuals or corporations. Fraud, you know.

One can yearn for simpler times. When a friend's mother died a few years back, we found that essentially both she and her husband had changed their first and last names over the years, by the simple expedient of using the new name until people forgot about the old one. (No legal name change, but the names they were currently known by, on everything, including driver's licenses and so on, were different than those on their birth certificates, a fact which their children didn't even know.)

Today, with databases and computers, no one will forget your old name.
posted by jellicle at 9:46 AM on January 6, 2006

Fill out all his paperwork as J. Middlename Lastname -- have his insurance card listed this way, his school paperwork, everything. bemis' answer above is right on target.
posted by anastasiav at 9:47 AM on January 6, 2006

I have a similar situation. My name is actually Firstname Middlename1 Middlename2 Lastname, but I've always gone by "Middlename1". Firstname is also an old family tradition of naming sons, though my father also went by his middle name.

I've always used Middlename1 as my first name in every respect and on anything I sign, as have my parents. So far as I can tell, as long as it's consistent, even if it's not the actual first name on the birth certificate, it's fine. So, in short, bemis' advice goes along with my experience.
posted by Durhey at 9:50 AM on January 6, 2006

My father, lifelong Canadian, has lived your entire life like your son, going exclusively by his middle name. I doubt many people outside of immediate family even know it's not his proper first name. So I guess it can be done. Though I'm less sure exactly what every form of ID he has says.
posted by GuyZero at 9:59 AM on January 6, 2006

Response by poster: I'm not complaining about confusion. It's just that my husband's older brother, who has a different father, goes by his middle name and has no problems. Many of our friends also go by middle names. However, all of them are in their 30s or 40s, which was before the days of everything being on the computer. None of them had to argue with bankers and medical receptionists who have computer dialogue boxes that will only allow Firstname Initial Lastname.

I just want to know if using my son's middle name is still his legal name. All of his legal papers say Firstname Middlename Lastname. So, as far as I can tell, calling him Middlename Lastname is no less legal than Firstname Lastname.

When asked for his legal name, can I just say it's Middlename Lastname and not give the initial? In these situations, they ask for copies of ID anyway.
posted by acoutu at 10:01 AM on January 6, 2006

Response by poster: Actually, I guess this is more a question of how to address people with computer systems set this way, unless someone can show me that Middlename Lastname is not legal.
posted by acoutu at 10:02 AM on January 6, 2006

I go by Middlename Lastname in most contexts except for legal/financial ones, where I go by Firstname Middlename Lastname if possible, and Firstname Middleinitial Lastname if not.

The only issue is when I call customer service and identify myself as Middlename Lastname, then say, "You probably have it as Firstname Lastname." Other than that minor inconvenience it hasn't been a problem.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:17 AM on January 6, 2006

I have this setup for my name and it is a bit of a pain from time to time, but generally it's not an issue. I think it's perfectly reasonable to expect to go through life with this kind of name configuration, and you (and your son) should be able to do it without huge problems.

Basically I make a distinction between anything government related and everything else. On my health card and passport, plus WRT Revenue Canada, I am known by my full name, no initials. On my driver's license, credit cards, and at the bank, I am known with my initial, middlename, lastname.

Most other places I am known only by middlename lastname. This has only caused a problem once, and it was a biggie, when another Michael Boyle (but with a different middle name and no name before Michael) was mis-identified with me and I received a demand to pay his student loans in full. But since our SINs were different it was easy to correct this problem.

I have checked into this with lawyers from time to time and there is nothing more or less legal about one name configuration or the other. There IS an issue with changing the name order on forms though, as that becomes essentially a different name than the real legal name.

If you ever wanted to make a stink about this (presumably because someone is being pissy about accepting a perfectly legal name configuration) note that there is a discrimination issue here and accepting only "normal" name configurations is a big problem in a multicultural society. Being known by one's middle name is very common among Catholic people, and a company that doesn't know or recognize that (and allow it in their recordkeeping) is being quite offensive. In Quebec before the 60s, for instance, pretty much everyone went by a different name than they were baptized under - that first name was either Jean or Marie (M or F) with the second name being the common name.

IMO, a company that designs a database that can't accomodate this kind of thing well and respectfully of difference (and it arises WRT Sikhs and many others as well) should be considered incompetent.
posted by mikel at 10:21 AM on January 6, 2006

There was a cute opinion piece in the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago about the middle name issue (reg. required).
posted by solid-one-love at 10:29 AM on January 6, 2006

I changed my name for a similar reason.

Everybody other than my family called me by my nickname (Waldo) as a lad. Eventually I got tired of the legal name / practical name thing, so I changed my name, adding "Waldo" to the beginning, giving me a George Herbert Walker Bush kind of a thing.

I'm of the mind that your name ought to be what you go by. If his name is, for all practical purposes, Middlename Lastname, why not drop Firstname and be done with it?
posted by waldo at 10:32 AM on January 6, 2006

I have the same situation. I have always gone by my middle name since my first name is the same as my father's. For most records, I use First initial-middle name-surname. The only situation where my full name is used is government-related things: passport, driver's licence, social security card, tax forms - since government documents usually demand one's "full legal name." This carries over to a few other areas: paycheck (due to government paperwork), and medical records (since they stem from insurance which I get from my employer - and the employer HR department will only accept the full name as it is on official government documents, which, as I said, demand your "full legal name" :) )
posted by sixdifferentways at 11:18 AM on January 6, 2006

Response by poster: Okay, thanks. Mikel, that point about French Canadians is great.

We had figured our son would go through life as J. Quentin Smith (e.g.) and that this would not be a problem. It hasn't been a problem for anyone else I know. In fact, my grandfather actually goes by an anglicized version of his name (e.g. Frank Andrew), since he didn't learn of his registered name until he joined the army (e.g. Joseph Andre Franz). He's never had any problem.

However, so far, I've found that databases at doctor's offices and my bank are only set up to take Firstname MiddleInitial Lastname. So how do I handle this situation? Force them to put John Quentin in the first name space? I know it's stupid that they are set up this way -- I've worked in the software field, including for a banking software firm. It never occurred to me that databases would be such a pain. I figured anything legal would just have John Quentin Smith or J. Quentin Smith. With all the Asian and French Canadian people in Canada, I am shocked that the databases are like this.
posted by acoutu at 11:47 AM on January 6, 2006

Response by poster: I don't mind if my son eventually drops the first name. But this goes back generations and my husband made a promise to his father, who died when he was still young. It is really important to my husband to continue the tradition for a variety of reasons and it is not uncommon in his culture. When we surveyed family and friends, none thought it was any different than going by your first name, since 99% of the world will only ever know his usual name.
posted by acoutu at 11:50 AM on January 6, 2006

Actually, the "J" for Catholic Francophones (and some Anglophones) born in Québec before or around 1960 stood for "Joseph", not Jean. My full name goes like Joseph C. André Roberge (I like to keep the "C" secret ;-), but the name I use legally everywhere is simply André Roberge. I haven't had any problems with it; it's even the name that appears on my passport (but my full name appears on my birth certificate, of course).
posted by aroberge at 12:27 PM on January 6, 2006

Response by poster: Aroberge, have you run into computers that won't take you as Andre Roberge?
posted by acoutu at 1:08 PM on January 6, 2006

aroberge is correct, sorry about the small mistake.

I think what I was getting at is that in place of "first name" in certain capacities I think it is equally appropriate to read "given name" and not interpret it as a demand for the literal first name but for the name your son is known by. In such cases, I put "Michael Boyle" as I have done here in MeFi and many many other places.

In other cases - when I had a GST number, for other CRA purposes, credit cards, my house, insurance - I use either a first initial or the entire first name alongside the rest of the information.

I don't understand how that doesn't work, acoutu? Is there an officious staff member at the doctor's who is telling you what you HAVE to do?

In that case I would suggest to the receptionist or whoever that fine OK but he or she had BETTER figure out a way for the doctor and anyone else who sees the file to KNOW the real given name, because when the file is seen your son very well might be under a stressful medical situation and you don't want them exacerbating it by calling him by a name that he's not as comfortable with.

But I'm a bastard that way.
posted by mikel at 1:35 PM on January 6, 2006

They don't care what you call him. They want to know how to bill the isurance company, where his school records are filed, what his driver's license says, etc. My son's name is similar in concept to what you describe. He goes by F. Middle Lastname. Many forms only have space for middle initial, insist on first name, and the school database will only refer to him as Firstname. Insert rant about how crappy the school's database and general approach to technology are. Because his name is so similar to his dad's, billing, driving records, and insurance are constantly screwed up. You can't win. Always ask the keepers of records to verify birthdate, and swear a lot if that helps.
posted by theora55 at 1:54 PM on January 6, 2006

Never had any problem with using André Roberge only. I even leave "middle initial" blank.
What would it mean anyway?
posted by aroberge at 1:55 PM on January 6, 2006

Response by poster: Hmmm. Okay. Maybe I'll just insist that it's his legal name. I'm screwed now because the bank has him as Firstname (Middlename) on one account and Firstname MiddleInitial on another account. Is it possible to go in to the bank manager after accounts have been set up and tell them they need to (1) standardize and (2) recognize that his middle name is his legal name?

In the future, I'll just insist on Firstname Lastname. We're new at this, but it should be okay from now on.
posted by acoutu at 3:09 PM on January 6, 2006

Response by poster: Jeez, I meant Middlename Lastname. Now I'm confused!
posted by acoutu at 8:43 PM on January 6, 2006

acoutu, I'm actually sure that the bank would prefer it be the same name -- whichever isn't important.

I'm not sure why this has been such a hassle for you. It is of course an ongoing problem that -- at least in the US -- databases are designed around the Firstname M. Lastname standard, which doesn't work well for Firstname M. M. Lastname or Firstname M. Lastname Lastname2, let alone any of the more complicated foreign naming conventions.

I will say that my uncle was given the name Charles Robert, but because of some other Charleses, was always called Bob at home. I grew up knowing him as Bob. From college on, though, he went by Chuck. Recently he insisted that we just drop the Bob entirely -- which was fine by me, really, especially since it was Alzheimer's related (he just didn't recognize when we called out to him with his middle name). My point being that your kid may well end up deciding to call himself something different, so you may as well think flexibly.

Anyway, here's my scheme: For govt, educational, and financial records, go with full legal name. For medical records, they'll need the full legal name -- but they may have a separate field for nickname so that will appear on printouts. Feel free to call him by the middle name, but don't pretend that it's his first name. Accept that choosing to buck the standard means you'll have to do just an ounce more work. Sucks, but you're not gonna get 500 places to rewrite their databases. Good luck.
posted by dhartung at 12:13 PM on January 7, 2006

Response by poster: So I contacted my provincial government's name registry. They confirmed that the full name is my son's legal name. Anything else is just a social preference. So the bank is not correct in insisting that Firstname Lastname is my son's legal name. The legal name is Firstname Middlename Lastname.

It has occurred to me that maybe I can force the bank to put my son's first and middle names in the first name database field. Then not specify an initial. Maybe I'll put this in a letter to the bank manager and note that their ability to accommodate us will probably affect our loyalty for accounts related to our son.

I don't care if the bank or anyone else thinks of my son as Firstname Middlename Lastname or even just Firstname Middlename. It's just that I don't want his materials to arrive as Firstname Lastname, if possible.
posted by acoutu at 10:00 PM on January 10, 2006

Response by poster: FWIW, my bank wrote back to me and confirmed that everything has been changed to F. Middlename Lastname.
posted by acoutu at 11:52 PM on February 20, 2006

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