“Common Usage” Does Not Work Anymore

At one time, someone could change his or her name just by doing it. Name changes relied on what was called “common usage,” a common law rule permitting name changes in conjunction with marriage (or divorce) as along as a party did so “consistently, openly and non-fraudulently, without interfering with other people’s rights.”

This custom never became law, and the English common law view was that a woman’s surname was not bound to her marital status and arose only through her use of a name.

Today, to change a name, a person needs to follow the laws of the state of residence. However, it is easy to go back to any last name used before, including a maiden name or even that of a previous spouse or a hyphenated name.

In many jurisdictions, the standardized divorce decree contains a line item for a name change. Or a person can tell the court at the final hearing the name she would like to use. When they sign the final decree, certified copies of the decree have an embossed seal (to prove that it’s genuine).

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