Changing Your Name After Abuse

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Last night, I was looking through my server logs and was glad to see that several people have been reading some of the articles in this site’s Domestic Violence Information section. Then I discovered something that suddenly made me feel very sad. One visitor had arrived at my site after doing a Google search for the words, “change name escape abuse.” Knowing that this site doesn’t have any information on how to change your name, I felt sort of like someone was in real trouble and had called me for help, but they had gotten my answering machine instead of me. So, this morning, I wrote this explanation of how the process of legally changing our names worked when my wife and I did it last year. I hope this article will provide some help or guidance to someone who is looking for that type of information.

Please note, however, that while this article will give you an idea of what we had to do to change our names, your particular state or county’s name-change process and requirements may be very different than what they were for us, and depending on how complicated your particular situation is, you may need to hire an attorney to help you change your name. At the very least, you should call your local women’s shelter, to see if they have anyone on staff who can help you through the lengthy and often-difficult name-change process.

My wife and I live in Florida. In the state of Florida, individuals (and couples who have no minor children) can change their first, middle, or last name for just about any reason, except to escape their creditors or to cover up the fact that they have a criminal past. In our particular county, we had to go to our county courthouse and pay about $10 to buy an inch-thick package of name-change forms. No one in county government would even tell us which of those forms we had to fill out and they answered every single one of my questions by saying, “We can’t give you legal advice. If you don’t know what to do, you’ll have to hire an attorney to help you.” We couldn’t afford to hire an attorney, so I spent an entire day carefully reading through every single page of the name-change packet, trying to understand all of the legalese.

Surprisingly, after awhile, it all started making sense to me. What I figured out was that, out of that entire stack of forms, my wife and I really only needed to fill out 4-6 pages that were spread out in 3 different sections of the packet. The reason the packet is so thick is because it has forms to cover every possibility that might come up. For example, if you have children who are minors, and you want to change their names, too, the name-change process gets a lot more complicated than it is for people who have no minor children. If you have minor children, you generally need the permission of their other parent before you can change the children’s names, so the name-change packet contains forms for that. If the other parent refuses to give their permission, then there are forms to try to get the court to let you change their names anyway. If the other parent ignores the court’s subpoena, there are forms for that, etc., etc., etc. Basically, if you’re willing to change your own name without changing your minor children’s names, the name-change paperwork is significantly easier to fill out, and the name-change process takes a lot less time than if you need to change the children’s names, too.

If my wife and I had wanted different last names, we would have had to fill out individual name change requests, and the name-change fee itself would have cost us a couple of hundred dollars apiece. But since we both wanted the same last name, we were able to fill out the “family name change” form, to change both of our names in one request, so the fee was a couple of hundred dollars for the two of us. We didn’t have to pay any attorney’s fees, since I had figured out which forms to fill out all by myself. It took a few hours to fill them out. They required a lot of historical information such as a list of every address we’ve lived at our entire adult lives, along with the dates that we lived there. I don’t remember for sure, but I think we also had to list all of our previous employers, with their names and addresses. We also had to state for the record that we’re not convicted felons and that we’re not changing our name to get away from creditors. In the state of Florida, you can legally change your name for just about any reason, except that you can’t do it to try to leave your criminal record behind or to try to avoid your creditors.

The forms also required basic identification information, like our Social Security numbers. We also had to attach a copy of our marriage license, to prove that we’re married. And of course, we had to state the new name that we wanted. My wife chose to keep her first and middle name, but changed her last name to the name that we had chosen together. I kept my first name, dropped my middle name completely, and changed my last name to our chosen last name.

Then we had to make an appointment to be fingerprinted at our local police station. That cost about $10 apiece and took about a half-hour for both of us. At that time, we also agreed in writing to let law enforcement do criminal background checks on us — as required by the state of Florida when you legally change your name. We added the completed fingerprint forms to our packet of name-change paperwork.

Once we had filled out all of the required name-change paperwork and gotten our fingerprint forms, I went back to the county courthouse and turned it all in, along with the money for the name-change fee. Even though the county people had earlier refused to even tell us which name-change forms we would need to fill out, I was glad when the courthouse clerk looked through every page of our paperwork, to make sure that it was all there and it was all completed correctly. It was. We were assigned a court date almost 2 months later — probably to give law enforcement time to complete our criminal background checks.

On our assigned date, we took our drivers licenses (for identification) and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the county courthouse and waited outside the office of “The General Magistrate,” a court-appointed attorney who serves in sort of a high-level clerical role for things like name-changes. When our time came, an armed guard escorted us into his office. He asked us if we were the people who we had said we were. We said, “Yes.” He asked us if we wanted to change our names to the names that we had listed on our name-change forms. We said, “Yes.” He typed our new names in his computer, printed a page that showed our new names, and had us check them to make sure that he had typed them correctly. Then he signed our forms, stamped them with some sort of official stamp, and we were done. The whole appointment took less than five minutes, and our name change was finally official.

After that, it took about twelve days before we received an official, certified copy of our “name-change court order” in the mail. We knew that we had to notify about 75 different credit card companies, banks, utility companies, previous employers, insurance companies, doctors, retirement account holders and others that we had changed our names. In fact, we had made a long list of all the places that had to be notified.

We started by going to our local Social Security office to change our names on our Social Security cards, while keeping the same Social Security numbers that we had always had. After filling out their name-change forms and waiting in line for a long, long time, they changed our names in their computer system, destroyed our old Social Security cards, and gave each of us a one-page letter of receipt, confirming that we had applied for new Social Security cards and stating that our new cards would be mailed to us within two weeks. There was no charge to get new Social Security cards.

IMPORTANT: Be sure to apply for your new Social Security card before you get your new drivers license, because the Social Security people need to see both your old drivers license with your old name and your birth date on it, and your court-certified name-change order before they will issue a new Social Security card with your new name on it. If you make the mistake of getting your new drivers license before you get your new Social Security card, then you will be required to show the Social Security people some other official ID — not your birth certificate — that shows both your old name and your birth date. I don’t know about you, but my old drivers license was the only official ID I had that showed both of those pieces of information.

After we applied for our new Social Security cards, we went to our local drivers license office to get new drivers licenses. All we had to do was show them our old drivers licenses along with our court-certified name-change order. And of course, we had to pay for the new licenses, which they gave us right there, after taking new photos of us.

Once we had those two things changed, it was easier to change all of the others, since many of them wanted a certified copy of our name-change order from our local county along with our new drivers licenses and banks wanted to see our new Social Security cards, too. Our county charges about $3 for each certified copy of a name-change, so to save money, we took our original to a copy store and made color copies of it for about one-third of that price. The color copies bear the exact same non-embossed, red county seal and blue signature as the original certified name-change order, so everyone accepted them as if they were originals. Most companies changed our name in their records without charging a fee, but a few of them charged us a fee. Our mortgage company wanted to charge us a $100 fee to change our names in their records. My wife talked them into reducing their fee to $50.

It took several more months to mail letters and copies of court papers to our entire list of organizations, to notify them of the change — because we had to follow-up with several of them three or more times before they finally changed our names in their databases.

All in all, changing our names took a lot of work, it took several months, it caused us a lot of stress, and it cost us a total of around $500 in fees, postage, copy costs, etc. If we had hired an attorney it would have cost us all of that plus the attorney’s fees.

But, to us, it was all worth it.

NOTE: Legally changing our last name did not allow my wife and I to physically “escape” my biological family’s abuse. That came when we permanently cut off all contact with them. After we did that, we legally changed our name to get closure.

Keep in mind that legally changing your name will not allow you to leave behind your debts, credit rating, legal obligations, criminal record, or even your abuser — there will always be public, legal records of your old name, your legal name change, and your new name, so all of those things will always “stay connected to you” in everyone’s databases, making it possible for anyone who’s willing to do the work, to eventually find you.

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6 Responses to Changing Your Name After Abuse

  1. kitkat says:

    Bob, Your personal story has provided some hope for me. Like you, I am a “survivor” of family abuse. Actually, our stories are almost identical except that my entire family has ironically become part of the cycle of abuse. For the first time in my life, I actually feel like someone can finally understand what I am going through (that would be you!).

    I seem to be the only “normal” one in the family that has any common sense and stability. My mother still refuses to leave our abusive father because he has played to her fears well and manipulated the relationships around her and the information she receives. For several years, I kept trying to make a decent relationship with the rest of the family work because the people around me kept pressuring me to do so … “because family’s all you got” …or “because God says to forgive and keep trying”… or “because they’re all older now so they *should* be more mature,” etc. etc. This was before I realized that this was all bad advice from people who just recycle the ideals they hear on TV and never knew abuse in their own lives. In hindsight, it would have saved a lot of emotional pain to reinforce my boundaries, cut my losses, cut out the toxic family and move on. Once I realized that, of couse I cut off contact.

    When that was done, I thought I was finally free. No more guilt trips, no more getting pulled into their drama. Or so I thought…. A few years later, I found out that my psycho sister (who was just as bad as our father) had been setting up accounts in my name and trying to find out more information about me (where I lived/worked, etc.). Then, I put the pieces together and figured out that my sister had been trying to gain access to my existing accounts, too. And it was rather easy for her to do so, since she was family and already knew my SSN, birthdate, a few past addresses, the school I went to and more. She was even successful getting a copy of my college transcript.

    Just think about it…. the verification process for your bank accounts, credit card accounts, school records, credit history, federal student loan accounts, etc. is not that hard for a family member to get through. Usually, the companies ask you to verify publicly available information about you, such as your past addresses, cities, or streets you’ve lived in/on. Isn’t that stupid to use *publicly available* information to verify someone’s identity? Like that’s going to be secure if it’s public info. So, it doesn’t matter what password you choose, a family member or someone that knows you well can pretty easily guess the verification information or find out with a simple online background check report.

    Moreover, when the time came to apply for a security clearance, I was at the mercy of my abusive family since I had none of their information other than birth dates. (I’m the only non-psycho one in the family.) So my years of no contact came to an end. I was forced to contact them again, and they refused to provide the information that was needed. Some of them outright refused and some of them tried to extort money and info about me out of me. The emotional abuse was back in a flash.

    I am very tired of always being associated with my abusive family. I’ve researched and wrote letters to my congressmen (all of which went unanswered — that’s our tax dollars at work for you) about ways to completely and legally renounce my family ties. I just want to be me and not constantly have to be tied to my family. I can’t ever really be free. The only way I can get my SSN changed is that I have to prove extenuating circumstances of identity theft or domestic violence. It’s too late to prove the ID theft because she had already closed the accounts by the time I found out about them (and also due to other factors I’d rather not disclose so that this post doesn’t personally identify me). I had already escaped the physical abuse from them years ago so it was too late to prove that now, too.

    My bank and credit card companies refuse to use a stricter verification process even though I’ve advised them of my circumstances. I find it ridiculous that as an adult, my family still has so much access to my information and I have no way to control its privacy. They can always find me because of that. I have no criminal records, am financially responsible, have been a straight A student, and am a hardworking tax payer…. and yet I can’t change my SSN and legally cut my family ties. I see no reason why those without a criminal past cannot do this. The change could only be kept private with creditors, employers and government agencies so it’s not like someone can abuse this system if it were to be implemented. How are victims of domestic violence supposed to move on if they’re always going to be legally associated with their abusers? Moreover, as much as people say it shouldn’t affect a person’s prospects of getting a job, I’ve been there and beg to differ. I’ve had to make it seem as if my family relations were average in past job interviews because I knew I would be discriminated against if I answered otherwise. And when I was honest, I never got the job because the family drama was already instantly associated with me and no employer wanted to potentially deal with that. It is very true that you are not only victimized once but many times over — by your peers, your community.

    I have found that most people do not like to hear the truth. They shun you when they hear the truth. It is easier for me to say that I am an orphan than to be victimized again and explain my past abuse. The cycle of abuse could be broken if we were given the tools to be able to move on.

  2. ComputerBob says:

    Dear kitkat,
    I’ve sent you an email message.

  3. Sandy says:

    I’m actually seriously considering doing this. My therapist thinks it is a good idea. Problem is I bought my house and am paying on a mortgage. It doesn’t seem like a good idea until I am able to sell my house and move, because my family knows where I live. Also since I’ve cut contact they have started going after my son, who now has cut contact. So as a result of that they lied and played victim to his brother who lives far away and basically ruined their relationship. My oldest son is in serious denial about his grandparents. I’m so exhausted. on top of my crazy family I have been stalked by my ex husband for 20 years, over the internet. It’s just too much. I really want to just go, right now. I’m totally ready to cut ties with everyone who has every known me just to put an end to all this crap. My mother is a monster, my siblings are bat s**t crazy and desperate for her approval. My father is dead thank God, and I know some people will be shocked and outraged that I said that, but you didn’t go through what I went through. The physical abuse alone is justification enough, but the emotional manipulation, and freaking mental abuse from both parents- I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy. It really is just EVIL. That is my family- evil. I feel so stuck right now, and know that I am just in a calm period right before they unleash hell on me. I wish i could go right now.

  4. ComputerBob says:

    Dear Sandy,
    As I’m sure you understand, legally changing your last name doesn’t make the crazies leave you alone, but it is something that you can choose to do to help yourself feel like you’ve “divorced them”, or to give yourself closure. For my wife and me, changing our name served both of those purposes.

    Please feel free to contact me via email if you’d like.

  5. tk says:

    Thank you so much for explaining this so well! It means so much. I am very determined to do get name change, its just, I always want to know how it worked out for someone else in a similarly tough spot. <3

  6. ComputerBob says:

    tk,
    Though the actual paperwork and details vary from state to state, I hope that my article gave you enough general information that your name-change efforts will be successful! 😉

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