All states set out legal procedures a person can use to change her given name, including first, last or middle. However, a person's signature is a different matter. A person is free to change a signature, and most people do alter the way they write their names between childhood and adulthood. But since there is no "legal signature," you don't need to know how to change your signature legally.
Importance of a Legal Name
The name a person is given at birth is called his legal name. It is recorded shortly after birth on his birth certificate, a document that also includes the names of his mother and father, his sex/gender marker, and the place and time he was born.
A legal name is important because it identifies a person as a separate individual in the world. The birth certificate listing a place of birth in the United States or a parent who is a U.S. citizen gives the child the right to U.S. citizenship and a Social Security number. The birth certificate also serves as a link to his family for inheritance and child support purposes.
Changing a Legal Name
A person wishing to change her legal name must do so through the courts. Of course, many people named Deborah go by Debby or Deb, but these are nicknames. Even if a Deborah uses her middle name as her professional name, her legal name remains the one on her birth certificate, unless she gets it changed in court.
The procedure for a legal name change varies slightly between the states. It requires a petition for name change signed by the person, if she is an adult, or by her parents or guardians, if she is a minor. In some states, like California, an Order to Show Cause (giving notice of the name change and time and place of the hearing) must be published once a week for four weeks in a general circulation newspaper before the court hearing. That's to be sure creditors are not defrauded.
Once a court grants the petition, it issues an order changing the name of the person. A certified copy of this order can be filed with the state's Office of Vital Records to amend the birth certificate and with the Social Security administration to change Social Security records. All credit the person gets in the future will be in the new name, and all passports or other identification documents as well.
Signatures Are Not Legal Identifiers
Unlike names, signatures are not recorded as legal identifiers. Everyone's signature changes drastically and repeatedly between the time he first scrawls his name in block letters to the time he signs his last will and testament. But no government agency tracks these changes.
A person is free to sign his name one way today and another the next day. In reality, most people fall into a habitual signature, but there is no legal obligation that a person follows this norm. According to handwriting specialists, an adult with an established signature will have trouble completely changing it, and "markers" will still be identifiable. But that doesn't make the established signature a legal identifier that the government tracks.
Read More: What Is Considered a Legal Signature?
Changing a Habitual Signature
Anyone interested in changing her signature from day to day is free to do so without any notice to anyone. But if a drastic change is contemplated, it's better to think ahead as to when it might be a problem.
It's true that banks and other financial institutions claim to watch for out-of-the-ordinary signatures on credit card receipts, but whether they do or not is an open question. But a person can certainly visit the bank and notify the manager of her new signature if she wishes to do so. To change a signature on a driver's license or passport, she can simply get a new one issued bearing her new signature.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.