While it is possible under Missouri law to adopt a new name simply by consistently using the new name, in most cases it is preferable to obtain official approval of a new name, usually through a court action.
There are at least five methods to change a name in Missouri, one of which actually involves federal law. They are:
These methods are discussed in more detail below.
An adopted child’s name can be changed at the time he or she is adopted if the adoptive parents so request.
Dissolution of Marriage
Missouri courts have consistently allowed women to change their names in dissolution proceedings to their maiden name or some other prior name. Occasionally, however, a judge will deny a name change in dissolution case when there is concrete evidence that the change would harm other persons, such as a child or children of the marriage.
A person becoming a U.S. citizen may have his or her name changed by the federal court as part of the naturalization proceedings. (Note: Scott Law Firm does not practice immigration or naturalization law, but can refer interested persons to attorneys who do.)
Under the common law handed down from England, Missourians can adopt any name they choose by custom and usage without a court order, so long as the new name does not interfere with the rights of others and is not adopted with fraudulent intent.
This common law right has not been displaced by the statutory name-change procedure described below, but it is not generally recommended because of the uncertainties involved. There is no definitive Missouri case law deciding how much usage of a new name is necessary to accomplish a change, so there will always be an indefinite period of time during which a person using this method will be using a name not yet legally his or her own before there has been sufficient usage to establish the new name. This can lead to certain problems including:
- Running the risk of violating a Missouri statute that makes it illegal to do or transact business in Missouri under any name other than the true name of the person without public registration of the other name.
- Proving the change of name to state and federal agencies and private businesses. For example, obtaining a new driver’s license, changing the name on a Social Security account, obtaining a new passport, and opening or changing bank accounts may be difficult if not impossible.
The only circumstance in which adoption of a new name by usage is generally accepted without question is when a woman follows the long-standing custom of adopting her husband’s surname upon marriage. Since the custom is so firmly established, most of the problems mentioned above are not present, but the new name should be used continuously and exclusively. (Note: Under Missouri law there is no legal requirement for a woman to change her name upon marriage.)
To avoid the problems inherent in adopting a new name by usage, Missouri law provides a method to change a name through court action. The procedure is relatively simple for adults, but complications can arise when changing a child’s name.
For an adult the name-change procedure starts with filing a petition with the court in the county where the person resides. Information required in the petition includes:
- The petitioner’s present name and the proposed new name.
- The reason for seeking the change.
- The petitioner’s date and place of birth, father’s name, and mother’s maiden name.
- If the petitioner is married, the spouse’s name and the names and ages of the petitioner’s children, if any, and their residence.
If the petitioner’s name previously has been changed, when, where and by what court.
- Whether there is any unpaid monetary judgment against the petitioner, and, if so, the name of the case, the case number, and the name and location of the court in which the judgment was granted.
- Whether any lawsuits seeking monetary damages are pending against the petitioner, and, if so, the name of the case, the case number, and the name and location of the court in which the case is pending.
Within a month or so after the petition is filed, the petitioner and his or her attorney must appear in court for a brief hearing. Most adult name changes are granted by the court without question at this hearing.
The court has limited discretion in denying name changes. Missouri law says that the court can deny a change only if there is evidence that third parties, including the state, might be harmed. For example, the court could deny a name change:
- If the petitioner seeks the change to avoid paying debts owed to creditors. (This is an example of a change harmful to third parties other than the state.)
- If the requested new name is bizarre, obscene or offensive, or is the same as the name of a governmental entity. (These are considered harmful to the state or public at large. Imagine the potential mischief if a person’s name were legally changed to “Department of Revenue.”)
The narrow discretion of a court to deny a name change is illustrated by a case in which the trial court’s refusal to change a petitioner’s first name to “Sunshine” was reversed on appeal. The appellate court held the trial court abused its discretion because the requested name was not particularly bizarre, obscene or offensive, and there was no evidence of harm to any third parties.
If the judge approves the name change at the hearing, the judge signs a name-change decree. The final legal step in the process is that notice of the court-approved name change must be published in a local newspaper once a week for three weeks.
After a name change is granted, the new name should be used exclusively. The person will need to notify numerous persons and agencies of the change, including tax authorities, voter registration office, drivers license and vehicle registration office, Social Security Administration, banks and creditors, most of whom will want a copy of the name-change decree.
Occasionally a person using the court-approved name-change process also wants his or her birth certificate altered. The Missouri Bureau of Vital Statistics is authorized to amend a birth certificate upon receipt of a certified copy of a name-change decree.
The procedure for changing a minor’s name through court action is similar, but there are some additional complications and procedures, summarized as follows:
- Because children under 18 cannot file court actions, the name-change petition must be filed by an adult – usually a parent or guardian – on behalf of the child.
- Unless both parents consent to the name change, the parent seeking the change must formally notify the other parent of the proposed change at least 30 days before the name-change hearing.
- If the child’s name is not being changed to a name different from that of the child’s non-petitioning parent, or if the non-petitioning parent has consented or does not object to the change, the name-change hearing is typically brief and the change is usually granted.
- However, if the non-petitioning parent contests the change, the hearing could be more lengthy and the results uncertain. The controlling standard is the best interests of the child. In applying this standard, the court can consider factors such as:
- The child’s age
- The potential embarrassment or discomfort the child might experience if his or her surname is different from the custodial parent’s surname
- How the name change would affect the child’s relationship with both parents
Scott Law Firm has successfully assisted male-to-female and female-to-male transgender individuals in obtaining name changes through the statutory name change process. This is most often done before the individual embarks on a period of living full-time in the desired gender role before undergoing gender reassignment surgery.
Some judges are less receptive than others to transgender name changes, and there can be complications in such cases that do not occur in routine name changes. For these reasons, it is recommended that transgender individuals retain an attorney with experience in this area of practice.
Transgender individuals should be aware that after gender reassignment surgery has been performed, Missouri law allows a second legal action to be filed in court to obtain an order that the individual’s birth certificate be amended to reflect the changed gender.
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