Before Christopher Frank of Niagara Falls, New York, researched his family tree, he knew his ancestors did not immigrate here by choice. “They were slaves who were shipped here from Africa,” he said, “and recorded as cargo, along with livestock and barrels of rum.”
Sure enough, Frank learned the DNA on his mom’s side matches the DNA of members of the Tikar Tribe in Cameroon. He already knew the links on his dad’s side, thanks to a memoir by an ancestor who was born into slavery.
The deeper he delved into his family’s history, the more he wanted to change his name, said Frank, who chose “Saladin Allah.” It was common for slave owners to give their slaves their last names, said Allah, thus blacks in his (and other) families had “white” names. “A name should be a reflection of who you are,” he said.
No one keeps a tally of how many people change their names each year, said Bruce Lansky, author of several books about names, including “100,000+ Baby Names,” though he estimates it’s about 50,000 a year.
Marriage and divorce are the most common reasons for name changes. Eighty percent of brides change their last names to their husbands’ names, said The Knot’s 2016 Real Weddings Study of women with an average age of 29.
Even when the name change is the result of marriage or divorce, though, it’s not necessarily the wife adding or deleting her husband’s name.
Patricia Mahoney of Southlake, Texas, for example, resumed using her maiden name post-divorce and took it one step further. Her daughter, then age 3, reasoned that their different last names meant Mahoney would no longer be her mom. So Mahoney appeased her by changing her middle name to her kids’ middle name, Doyle, which came from her paternal family tree.
Because most states allow spouses at least one free name change per marriage, with no expiration date, some spouses take their time.
“We had one client who was 84 and had never taken her late husband’s name,” said Jake Wolff, co-founder of hitchswitch.com, which takes the legwork out of your name change by creating a packet of documents to sign and send. “When he died, she couldn’t get the payout from his life insurance policy because it had to go to her with his last name. So after 62 years of marriage, she changed her name.”
Others just need some incentive. “I had one client who paid his wife (whom he was divorcing) $100,000 to stop using his last name,” recalled Anita Ventrelli, a Chicago family law attorney.
Another common reason is wanting a name that’s easier to pronounce or spell. That’s why Laurence Tureaud became Mr. T and why Tom Dlabola of Briarcliff Manor, New York, took his wife’s last name and became Tom Cameron.
Debt collectors were reason enough for Gary Thomas Adams II of Kansas City, Missouri, to change his name to Thomas Fredrick Adams. His name was too similar to that of a relative who was not paying his bills. The name change worked.
Judges understand why you want to change your name if it is the same as a bad guy’s. “When Saddam Hussein became the most-wanted man on the planet, there was a rush on the courthouse,” said Kenneth Boulden, clerk of the peace, in New Castle County, Delaware. “There are a lot of people named ‘Hussein.’”
Changing your name and gender is difficult. Only about a third of people who identify as transgender change their names legally, said the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). Others use a new name socially but keep their birth name legally.
The cost of changing your name varies by state, from less than $100 to more than $1,000, not counting legal fees. If you’re on a budget, ask your county bar association if there are attorneys in your area who volunteer their time for low-income clients. Transgender people can ask the Name Change Project (transgenderlegal.org) to match them with lawyers who work pro bono.
For an overview of the name-change law in your state, go to namechange.uslegal.com. Then, befriend the folks at your county courthouse, who will tell you how to file a petition and schedule a hearing with a judge.
Make lots of copies of the document the judge gives you, so you can change your name on your driver’s license, Social Security card, passport, tax records, voter registration card, bank accounts, credit cards, insurance policies, etc.
Lucky are those whose name changes are more than spreadsheet transactions. Said Adams of his: “It feels like I’m a brand-new person.”