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How Do Legal Name Changes Work in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts probate and family lawyer Kimberley Keyes reviews Change of Name Petitions in Massachusetts.

Many Massachusetts residents are unaware that, as an adult, a person can change his or her name, legally, for absolutely any reason, so long as the reason is considered valid by the Probate and Family Court (this really means that a person cannot seek a name change for fraudulent reasons). Not just surnames, either; people can change their first name, middle name, last name, any variation of the three, or all three. A Change of Name Petition (i.e. the form used to request that the Court allow you to change your name) must be filed to change a name. Most people change their last name (a/k/a surname), and they do so for a variety of reasons, such as: divorce; adoption; wanting a step-parent’s last name; to match a last name to that of a parent or child’s; even for show business purposes. Many people change their first and middle names, too. The reason can be as simple as disliking the sound of their given first name.

Several steps must be taken to obtain a Change of Name Decree in Massachusetts, which are outlined below:

Table of Contents for this Blog:

  • Step One: complete a Change of Name Petition
  • Step Two: other required documents
  • Step Three: filing and fees
  • Step Four: notice by publication
  • Step Five: the court hearing…or not
  • Step Six: informing other entities
  • A Brief Note on Petitions to Change the Name of a Minor

Step One: complete a Change of Name Petition

A Change of Name Petition is the official form used and required by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Trial Department Probate and Family Court for any name change request. The form requires the Petitioner (i.e., the person who wants to legally change her or his name) to disclose their current name, their address, and date and place of birth. The form also requires the name(s) of any spouse and children of the Petitioner; the reason the Petitioner wants the name change (this reason needs to be considered “valid” by the Court); and finally, the new name that the Petitioner wishes to take as their own. This form, which is a form of legal pleading, along with other supporting documents, is filed with the Probate and Family Court in the Massachusetts county where the Petitioner lives.

Step Two: other required documents

When a Petitioner files a Change of Name Petition, he or she is also required to file supporting documents with the original Petition. Always required is a certified copy of the long form Birth Certificate of the Petitioner. Birth certificates can generally be obtained from the Town Clerk or City Clerk in the town or city in which an individual was born, for a modest fee. It is important to note that the birth certificate must be the “long form” and it must be certified to be accepted by the Court.

Sometimes, other documents are necessary: these include any documents that demonstrate the circumstances under which the Petitioner ever changed his or her name(s) before, such as a surname change as a result of a marriage or adoption (the Petitioner would have to explain this on the Change of Name Petition and support any explanation of why the change of name occurred with the appropriate document – like a Judgment of Divorce).

Example: the hypothetical case of Jane Jones

Jane Smith, who lives in Marshfield, Massachusetts, wants to change her name to Jane Johnson (which is her favorite grandmother’s maiden name)

Jane was born on January 1, 1975 in Scituate, Massachusetts, and was named Jane Smith (her birth name)

  • Jane needs to include a certified long form copy of her Birth Certificate to show that she was born with the name Jane Smith, which she can obtain from the Scituate Town Clerk’soffice for $10.00.

In 2008, Jane Smith married Jack Jones in Hingham, Massachusetts and took Jack’s last name; her name changed to Jane Jones (her married name)

  • Jane needs to include a copy of the certified marriage certificate to show that when she married Jack she took his surname, legally making her Jane Jones. Jane can obtain a certified copy of her marriage certificate from the Hingham Town Clerk‘s office for $10.00.

In 2014, Jane and Jack were divorced in the Plymouth County Probate and Family Court, and at the final hearing, Jane asked the judge to allow her to resume using Jane Smith (her maiden name)

  • Jane needs to include a certified copy of the Judgment of Divorce to show that she legally resumed the use of her maiden name. If Jane does not have it, she can obtain a certified copy of the Judgment of Divorce at the Plymouth Probate and Family Court with a bank check for $20.00.

In 2016, Jane files a Change of Name Petition, along with the above-referenced supporting documents and any fees, requesting that the court allow her new legal name to be Jane Johnson, her reason being “personal preference” – a valid reason. Jane receives the instructions for publication and a citation. She follows the instructions and publishes a copy of the citation in the court-selected publication, for the court-specified duration and frequency. She receives a copy of the clipping(s) from the publication (proof of publication), and forwards them along with the original citation to the Court. Following the return date and no objections, the Court issues a Decree allowing Jane to take as her legal name Jane Johnson.

In summary, Jane was born Jane Smith (certified long form birth certificate as proof); became Jane Jones by marriage to Jack (certified marriage certificate as proof); went back to being Jane Smith when she was divorced (certified divorce judgment as proof); and now Jane is petitioning the Court to change her name to Jane Johnson (reason: personal – it’s her grandmother’s maiden name – which is generally considered a “valid reason” by the Court).

Contact Family Law Attorney Kimberley Keyes

Step Three: filing and fees

Once an individual has completed the Petition and attached all of the supporting documents, they pay a filing fee and file the packet with the Probate and Family Court in the County they live in. As of the date of this blog, the filing fees for a Petition in Massachusetts are $150.00, plus a surcharge of $15.00 and a $15.00 citation fee, for a total cost of $180.00. (Because some courts do not accept personal checks or credit cards, it is always a good idea to call the court ahead of time to confirm the filing fee amount and methods of payment accepted.)

The Court requests a criminal record check from the Office of the Commissioner of Probation for any Petitioner over age 10. If the criminal record check is successful, the court dockets (i.e., files and assigns a number to) the Petition. The docketing process can take anywhere from three weeks to two months, where many courts in Massachusetts only process Change of Name Petitions once per month. After the Petition is processed, the court issues a citation that is mailed to the Petitioner.

Step Four: notice by publication

Public notice of the Petition generally must be given by “publication.” Many would say that publication is the most complicated part of the process, although publication is no more difficult than placing a classified ad in a local newspaper. As mentioned above, the Petitioner will receive a citation from the Court that includes details about the case that must be published in a local newspaper in the “legal notices” section. Most citations will provide the name of the newspaper where the citation must be published. (For our imaginary friend Jane, who lives in Marshfield, Massachusetts, there is a good chance her citation would be need to be published in the Marshfield Mariner.) The Petitioner must contact the local newspaper’s legal notice department and provide the documentation to newspaper staff, who will work with the Petitioner to ensure the proper notice is published. Publishing puts the public on notice that a person is petitioning a court to change his or her name and makes the Petition subject to objections (for most adults, objections to a name change would be exceedingly rare).

Generally speaking, the newspaper must publish the citation in one to three weekly or biweekly editions to satisfy notice requirements. The fees for publishing a legal notice vary from paper to paper, but are generally in the $150 range. Some papers provide “self service” legal notice services online. Because the Court assigns the newspaper, however, the cost and convenience (or inconvenience) of publishing involves a good deal of random luck. That said, every newspaper considers legal notices an important source of revenue, so a quick search of the newspaper’s website will usually reveal contact information for the legal notice department. When in doubt, call and ask.

Once the citation is published, the newspaper will mail the clipping(s) back to the Petitioner. The Petitioner must then return the original citation (i.e., the Citation originally issued by the Court), along with the newspaper clipping(s), to the Court as proof of publication. It is important to note that when a Court issues a citation for publishing, the citation often requires the Petitioner to publish the legal notice within a relatively brief window of time. This means Petitioners must immediately seek out and contact the local newspaper after receiving the citation. A failure to meet the publishing deadline often slows down the name change process considerably and may even subject a Petition to a dismissal.

Step Five: the court hearing…or not

For most Petitioners, completing publication is the hard part. Once a Petitioner returns the citation and clipping(s), usually all they must do is wait for the “return date” on the citation to expire. The purpose of the return date is simply to provide the public the opportunity to object to the name change after publication has been completed. If, after public notice is proven, the return date has expired, and no one objects to the change of name (and assuming the application and publication were proper), then the Court issues a Decree (Judgment) establishing the new name, administratively. There is no need for a hearing.

Generally, a hearing is only required if someone files a written objection to the name change or if the judge reviewing the Petition identifies a concern with the name being chosen. If there are any objections, the Court will schedule a hearing and listen to the reasons why a person objects to the Petitioner changing their name and to the Petitioner on why they should be allowed to change their name. Objections to adult name changes are exceedingly rare, but not unheard of.

Denials of name changes are also rare, but again, are not unheard of. For example, if a judge hears evidence that a person is seeking a name change to avoid legal judgments or actions, or to defraud another, a denial may occur. In any event, a Judge will then make a determination based on the arguments made at the hearing, as well as the supporting documents filed with the court. Based on this evidence, a judge will allow or deny the Petitioner’s request.

Step Six: informing other entities

If the Court issues a Decree legally allowing the Petitioner to change their name, the Petitioner must arrange to update their information with various entities such as the Social Security Administration, Registry of Motor Vehicles, passport agency, credit card companies, utility companies, etc., to effectuate the name change. It is important to understand that the Court will not inform any other party except the Petitioner (by Decree) that the Petitioner has changed their name.

A Brief Note on Petitions to Change the Name of a Minor

Lastly, it should be noted that although a petition to change a minor child’s name is procedurally similar to an adult Petition, a request to change a child’s name will be scrutinized much more carefully by a judge. Of particular concern is whether both of the child’s biological parents consent to the name change and the reason the name change is sought. Most judges are reluctant to change a child’s last name over the objection of a parent absent a compelling reason such as total abandonment of the child by the biological parent with whom the child shares a name.

Even if one parent is deceased, a judge will carefully consider whether a name change is in a child’s best interest, where much of a child’s identity may be tied up in his or her name, and the child’s memory of the deceased parent may be closely tied to the name. Moreover, petitions to change a minor’s name are generally presented to the Court by a parent or guardian. Without the child available to testify, a judge will often express concern over whether the request to change the child’s name originates with the child or with a parent or guardian who is imposing his or her will on the child. Consultation with a qualified attorney is a smart move for individuals seeking to petition the court to change the name of a minor child.

About the Author: Kimberley Keyes is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts and East Sandwich, Massachusetts. She is also a mediator for South Shore Divorce Mediation.

Schedule a consultation with Kimberley Keyes today at (781) 253-2049 or send her an email.

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