Navigating Name Change

Whose name is it anyway?


in Features


I didn’t change my last name in some symbolic act of patricide; it never felt that radical. I’d been estranged from my father and his family for most of my adult life. Throughout my childhood he appeared like the occasional summer storm cloud in an otherwise blue sky — the kind that quickly accumulates in hot weather, brings momentary relief from the sun, and then, with the most incremental atmospheric change, explodes with lightning and crushing torrents of rain. If the idea behind a surname is to serve as a marker of the people you come from, the tribe you belong to, then mine should have always reflected my mother. Simple.

For years, I considered making the change to Sanderson, my mother’s maiden and current name, but the sheer pain-in-the-assness of it always got in the way. Switching the important stuff — social security card, driver’s license, passport, bank things — didn’t worry me. Everything else — social media accounts, Amazon Prime membership, upcoming event tickets, my dog’s name at the vet — worried me. It’s overwhelming, but in June of 2017, I finally decided to pull the trigger.

The process couldn’t be that difficult, I assured myself — women get married and change their names every day. Since officially passing the mid-20s mark, my Facebook newsfeed has made that abundantly clear. My own brother got married earlier in the year and all it took for his wife to adopt the name I wanted to shed was their 60-dollar marriage license and a signature from the county clerk.

A basic Google search revealed that it wasn’t going to be so easy for me. It turns out that changing your name to the name of the woman who gave birth to you is much more complicated, expensive, and harshly judged than transferring your name from a father’s to a husband’s.

The steps to request a court-ordered name change vary somewhat from state to state but in Florida, it goes like this:

Step 1: Fingerprints at one of two businesses sanctioned by the county. Cost: $15.

Step 2: Pay the same company to send prints for FBI criminal background check. Cost: $99.

Step 3: Submit proof of identity and criminal history to office of family court and request packet titled “Florida Petition 12-982(a).”

Step 4: Fill out FL 12-982(a).

Information demanded on petition:

Current name, address, date and place of birth, names of mother and father, places of birth for mother and father, marital status, previous names, names and addresses of children, mother’s maiden name, every address occupied since birth, occupational history including the addresses of each of those business and dates employed, professional history, details regarding on-going business, current occupation, educational background including dates attended and degrees received, credit information and details of all old and outstanding debts, the details of creditors past and present, disclosure of previous bankruptcies, complete criminal history, new name requested.

Step 5: Return completed FL 12-982(a) to family court office for review.

Step 6: Request non-negotiable court date to make case for name change in front of a judge. Cost: $400 cash or money order.

Step 7: Wait for letter giving date of court appearance. Date usually falls within 90 days of letter.

Step 8: Wait for bailiff to call your name — hopefully for the last time it will ever be your name — and case number. Approach defendant’s table in a very real, Law and Order looking courtroom and remember you’re not guilty of anything. Explain to the honorable judge why you want to change your name. If she approves, spell your complete new name aloud and wait for her gavel to dismiss you from the court. Wait for court clerk to complete final paperwork. Cost of each copy of official court order: $10.

Step 9: After spending four months and $524 on your new name, begin the real task of putting it on everything.

Obviously, the procedure of legally changing your own name needs to be long, expensive, and complicated to prevent names from being fraudulently altered — so that all those con-artists and desperate people running from bad credit scores get caught somewhere between the finger printing and the petition line that asks where they received their BA in English. But it would kill the romance of marriage for brides to endure this trial. Not to mention the stress of an extra 500-plus expense on top of a costly wedding. And what if the government-set date didn’t work for both families? The public wouldn’t stand for this bureaucratic rigmarole just for a newly married woman to take her husband’s name. Her signature drawn next to his on their 60-dollar marriage license gives her a right to his name; I had no right to my mother’s.

With the legal part over, I figured, my complete conversion to Sanderson would prove easier going forward. My court-ordered document acted the same as a marriage certificate so there was no reason for the process to differ.

No such luck. While my document should have been treated the same as a marriage certificate, I found that people often didn’t know what to do with it. When I told the assistant manager of the bank I’ve banked with since the age of 15 that I needed to change the name on my account he said, “Congratulations! When did you get married?”

I smiled and very politely, almost apologetically, said, “I didn’t. I just changed it.”

“Oh,” he responded as his smile dropped and contorted into an awkward combination of mouth and eyebrows, “Do you — is there paperwork for that?”

Even with the judge’s document, the assistant manager needed to ask the manager and consult a telephone-book-sized guide before calling the change kosher, “Typical name changes don’t take this long,” he assured me.

Before I left, I thanked him for all his help and said I was sorry to be such a bother.

This exchange became the template for most of my future name change encounters which, after knocking out the big stuff, I decided to handle one by one as they came up. The old name lingered on a few things, my Gmail account recognized Sanderson as me but continued to put my old name on emails. My company credit card showed Sanderson on the card but my old name on receipts. Switching little things, like my Pinterest account seemed pointless; it didn’t bother me that much.

Months passed, and I moved out of state for a new job. The move and the job meant that most people I interacted with on a daily basis never knew me as anything other than Victoria Sanderson. The change felt complete until a weird week in April, just a few weeks shy of the one-year anniversary since I’d begun the process.

For an upcoming vacation, I needed to make an international money transfer. My bank always fusses about international things, so I made the transfer through Xoom, a transfer service provided by PayPal. In theory, my new Xoom account linked to my longstanding PayPal account and, in turn, my bank account. On a Monday night, I requested the transfer in a few clicks. Easy. Then, just as I shut my laptop, I realized I’d never changed my name in PayPal.

The next morning, an unsurprising email from Xoom waited in my inbox. I gave their customer service a call on my way to work and explained the whole thing. “No problem,” the rep told me, “Just send us a picture of your driver’s license and a bank statement showing your new name.” No problem. I sent it all over at lunch.

Wednesday morning, I woke up to another Xoom email. My government issued driver’s license — the one I used to board planes — and bank statement didn’t suffice. They needed me to call again.

I called from the lobby of an orthopedic clinic while waiting for an X-ray. Weeks earlier, a shard of wood impaled my arm while I helped repair a boardwalk. I suspected a piece remained embedded under my skin.

This time, the customer service rep requested a photo of my marriage license to explain the change in name.

The waiting room seemed to go quiet at exactly the same moment I explained that I didn’t get married.

“We need to see paperwork showing the change from your maiden name,” the rep explained again.

In a louder, more stern tone, I explained the situation again but promised to send a photo of the document I had. A nurse mercifully called my name as I hung up. The X-rays showed two pieces of chemically treated two-by-four floating a few inches above my right wrist. I set an appointment to have them cut out the next day.

That night, I emailed both a photo and a scan of the judge’s decree.

Thursday morning: another Xoom email. They couldn’t see all four edges of the document in the photo. Could I send it again? Before going to the hospital, I snapped another pic and attached it in an email.

I waited in a hospital bed for five-and-a-half Friends episodes before the doctor numbed my forearm and reassured me he’d be back to make the incision in a little while. I didn’t mind, minor surgery is a good excuse to miss a crummy day at work.

The numbing agent spread from the injection point to my pinky and my phone beeped with an email notification — Xoom. I expected a note approving my money transfer, finally. Instead, the company regretted to inform me that my identity could not be verified, and they could not accept me as a customer. This time, they didn’t leave a phone number.

The doctor returned and within minutes recovered both pieces of wood. He generously took his time sewing me back up so that the lines of my tattoo would heal in place.

Even though my wound looked more like a scrape, I still needed a heavy round of antibiotics to avoid a staph infection. I headed to the pharmacy to pick them up and called Xoom on the way.

Trying to drive with my good arm and balance the phone on my numb pinky finger, I begged, “What do you need to prove my identity? I’ve given you all the paperwork I have.”

They could not verify my identity and could not explain further. This transfer and no future transfers could ever be approved.

After almost a year of polite understanding, I lost it. I shouted at the poor customer service rep until he transferred me to his manager. I knew they weren’t suddenly going to accept my documents because I yelled a lot. I knew I’d find another way to send the money, probably by the end of the night. But in my car, in the pharmacy parking lot, I yelled anyway. I explained how ridiculous they were to never accept my business because I didn’t have a marriage certificate and ended the call by telling the manager to “Fuck off.”

I took a breath and got out of the car. I could have handled that better.

Inside, the pharmacist cheerfully informed me that “There’s no wait for this script. Just one sec while I print out the label. What’s your name?”

“Victoria Sanderson, but you might still have me in the system under my old name.” I gave her the information and she disappeared into the back.

She reappeared moments later, meds in hand. She explained everything and I paid. Then, noticed my old name on the label. I paused holding the pill bottle.

“Is everything ok?” She asked.

“This isn’t my name anymore.”

“You were right, we still had you in the system under that name . . . It doesn’t matter. I switched it for next time.”

I didn’t want to get angry about it again, but it did matter. The combination of sounds and letters that make up a name stand as a shorthand for your whole personhood; the tether to which the rest of your personality and history is tied. Without one you’re just a pronoun or “that girl.” Anonymous. With the wrong one you aren’t you.

I’m restless and loud, I love the attention from telling a good story, I dive wholeheartedly into half-baked ideas — all traits that the Sandersons formerly of upstate New York and currently of South Florida are known for. I have always been one of them, but patriarchal tradition determined my name before I had the chance to prove it.

Now, I’d gone through months of legal hoops to correct this mistake. I’d even been apologetic about it. Not anymore. My mother’s maiden name isn’t a security question or a temporary title to be discarded for a man; it’s my name and I’m not sorry about it.

“I’ll need another label.” •

Illustrations created by Emily Anderson.