Names & US law

I'm getting kinda tired of seeing false info circulating about how names work legally, so here's an overview. IANAL, IANYL, but I did legally change my name recently, and I did read the entire text of several dozen cases about it. I also have personally had ten years of experience with this in my personal and business life, including each category of name. So I probably know a lot more than most people.

I'm summarizing here for a general audience, so please pardon some slight legal imprecision. For more details, please read Julia Shear Kushner's excellent paper, The Right to Change One's Name (http://(, or if you actually care, read my collection of naming cases (zipped PDFs):

If I am wrong on anything, please correct me, but cite your sources and preferably provide a link. Here goes…

Most everybody has multiple perfectly legal names. For the sake of simplicity, here are the main categories. ALL THREE are legal names.

1. True name, i.e. the name that is listed on your birth certificate and so forth (modulo typos). This name is the only one you can use in federal court. It can be changed only by court order, which requires a few hundred dollars, publication in a local paper (unless you get a waiver, e.g. if it's being changed 'cause you have a stalker), etc.

Courts have some leeway about what they can grant, since this requires active government recognition and not merely a lack of interdiction, but generally have been slapped down on appeal if they deny something that's OK under common law.

2. Common law name, is simply a name that you use openly (and more or less primarily). Only 3 US states have abrogated this right by statute (and arguably those statutes are unconstitutional). It does not require filing anything with anyone, just day to day usage. It cannot be made for fraudlent purposes (e.g. impersonation of a celebrity, avoiding lawsuit or parole, etc); if you've been convicted of identity theft; if it's "fighting words" or equivalently obscene; or if it's simply incomprehensible as a name (e.g. it lacks letters). You can use any such name in state court and on contracts.

In the trivial case, using a nickname — e.g. Jack instead of John — is a common law name.

What names are OK varies. Courts are divided over whether mononyms are OK (most say yes); whether "Santa Claus(e)" is OK (about 50-50); etc. "Variable" is fine; "Fuck Censorship!", "Misteri Nigger", and "1069" got struck down, but "Ten Sixty-Nine" and "Richard XII-X" are fine. Recent courts have overturned older courts' presumption that children should have their father's surname. Etc… see JSK's paper for more.

Common law names do not need to be registered anywhere, and may well not be respected by e.g. a department of motor vehicles or passport office, who do not currently have a positive obligation to do anything about your name change without a court order. You can be told that you won't get a license under your common law name, but that doesn't stop you from having it. (Note though that the constitutionality of this is arguable; see the JSK paper.)

3. Fictitious business name aka doing business as aka operating as is a name that you have registered with your local county clerk. This is more or less the same as a legal name in some ways, but it's registered, and it's for use as a business more than as a person. Usually this is for e.g. "Bob's Bikes" or something, where you don't want to actually register an LLC / corp / etc, but it provides none of the protections that doing so does.

A person can have multiple of each of those. One is only supposed to have one "true name", but it can happen in a nonformal sense that one doesn't, such as if various legal documents get out of synch (eg birth cert doesn't match court order).

I think it's a strong legal argument that psuedonyms, handles online, and other autonyms are common law names and as such are legal names. In fact, it's a necessary argument for Google to support, because they provide services to people under a ToS contract which people must agree to before beginning to use the service. People often agree to it under a pseudonym, but doing so does not make it any less enforceable; pseudonyms are still perfectly valid names with which to sign a contract.

Further, there are several very strong legal arguments for why people have a fundamental right to change their names, including to use pseudonyms and other common law names, that are backed up by centuries of precedent and multiple state supreme court decisions. I defer to JSK's paper there, though, as I don't think I can summarize them any better than she already has. Go read it!

I hope that helps clarify a bit what the legal status of a "name" is. Or maybe just confused you into thinking about it more; that's OK too. :-P

I only know US law, so if you know others, please comment on any differences; I'd be interested to know more. English language academic references like the JSK paper above would be particularly good.

As I understand it, a UK "deed poll" is not a court order, but rather a kind of formal notarized statement that you file with a court that expresses one's decision to use one's common law right to change one's name. Its power comes from the person executing it, not from the court.
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