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What’s in a Name? How Names Are Established and Changed in NC

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary* a surname is defined as “the name shared by the people in the family.” We sometimes take our names for granted, unless we get saddled with a name that is embarrassing or unpopular. The law has specific requirements to create and change surnames, first names, and middle names if we have them. After all, for better or worse, our names are part of our very identity.

How Are Surnames Established?

How do we end up with the names we do get and who decides?  When a married mother delivers a baby, the surname (last name) of the father is automatically placed on the baby’s birth certificate unless both parents agree to choose another surname. When an unmarried mother delivers a baby, her surname is used on the birth certificate, and the only way the father’s surname is included on the birth certificate is when both he and the mother sign certain legal documents.  If parents adopt a child, or even if they adopt another adult, the clerk of court forwards the adoption records to the NC Vital Records, and a new birth certificate is issued, reflecting the new name of the person who was adopted. Parents who adopt children from other countries may apply to the NC Vital Records with the proper birth registration records and receive a certificate of identification.

Why Are Names Changed?

In the US, women regularly change their last names upon marriage and divorce. A divorced woman may petition the clerk of court (or the court if done at the same time as the divorce) to resume the use of a maiden name (birth name), the surname of a prior deceased husband, or the surname of a prior living husband if she has children with his surname. While it is not customary to see a man in North Carolina to change his surname when he married, he too may petition to change his surname upon divorce, back to the name he used before marriage.  A widow (surviving wife) may resume the use of her maiden name, the name of a prior deceased husband, or a previously divorced husband.  A widower (surviving husband), may resume the name he had before marriage.

Besides name change proceedings, the most common name changes are the result of changes in marital status. After a marriage, many people change their names informally, by custom only. This means there is no legal requirement to file any paperwork. In fact, in North Carolina, a person does not need to file any paperwork in order to choose a new name he or she desires, regardless of marital status, as long as the name is not for a fraudulent or illegal reason. Although the law itself does not require a person to sign documents or file any paperwork to assume a new surname, most government agencies do. For example, the NC Division of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Administration require a marriage certificate or certificate of divorce when applicants attempt to renew a driver’s license or obtain a social security card with a new name.

Other Reasons

But people have any number of reasons why their names aren’t satisfactory to them. I have seen clients who choose to change their names in honor of someone who acted as a parent to them even though they were not biologically related. Other times, the person’s name might be the same as a notorious or outrageous celebrity or political figure. When a person who is born a male, but identifies as a female, a name change with a feminine connotation may make him feel more comfortable (and vice versa). So, what do you do when your parents didn’t do you any favors with the name they gave you?  Or, you have personal reasons for changing your name?

How Do You Change It?

Aside from changing marital status, people may change their names by filing a legal proceeding with the clerk of court for a name change.  If the person meets the requirements, the clerk will issue a certificate of name change. Using this method, a person may seek to change a first, middle and/or last name but an adult may use this alternative only once.

The person must disclose the reason for seeking a name change, and a public notice must be filed at the courthouse for a certain number of days before the clerk will issue a certificate. A petitioner must list the reason he or she wants a new name.  He or she must submit to a national and statewide criminal history, and offer at least two statements “of good character . . . by at least two citizens of the county who know his standing.” Any outstanding tax or child support obligations must be disclosed to the clerk, and registered sex offenders are prohibited from obtaining a name change certificate.  Name change information is forwarded to the Division of Criminal Information of the State Bureau of Investigation.  Once the clerk is satisfied there is good cause to change a name, the clerk issues the certificate and adds a notation to that person’s birth certificate if applicant was born in NC.

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