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By Angela D. Giampolo

A person’s name says a lot about who they are. We can sometimes discern legacy, ancestry, and even religion from a person’s name. Most of us are lucky enough to feel comfortable with our given names – it’s a connection to the identity we grew up with. Not everyone is so lucky.

For transgender individuals who want to complete their transition or same-sex couples married in a state which doesn’t recognize their marriage, like Pennsylvania, a legal name change is necessary to receive updated legal documentation such as a driver’s license, passport, marriage certificate, or deed to real property.

Under Pennsylvania law, the protocols for changing names can be trying. The state wrote its name change statutes to facilitate the process for recently married or divorced heterosexual couples. An individual seeking a legal name change, for anything other than different- sex marriage, divorce, or adoption is required by law to submit a petition.

Individuals filing name change petitions in Pennsylvania, must submit their petition to the Court of Common Pleas in their respective county. Petitioners are required to produce a birth certificate, valid photo I.D., social security card, and fingerprint cards. Petitioners are also required to submit to a criminal background check to ensure that there are no pending criminal or civil actions against Petitioner. Petitioner’s fingerprints and petition information are also sent to their local police department.  Petitioners in certain counties must appear at a hearing before a judge to explain their reason for a name change. If all these requirements were not embarrassing or cumbersome enough, the Petitioner is also legally required to publish their name change in two local newspapers and submit proof of that publication to the court.

This process can be overwhelming, especially in the disparately effected LGBT community.

Trans individuals or LGBT couples must bear the financial burden of this process, in addition to the emotional burden inherent in changing identities. Name changes cost approximately $900 for the total costs of filing, judgment fees, and publication costs. Individuals, who have lived in a different county within the last five years, are required to conduct judgment searches with the clerk of each of those counties at $75 apiece. Many individuals may hire an attorney to save themselves hours of frustration and help them to navigate the process. The cost of an attorney’s services can range from $500-$750. An LGBT individual, who hired an attorney, could pay as much as $1500 for the process of a legal name change.

Some individuals, especially those who identify as transgender, undergo name changes to escape dangerous and violent domestic situations. Publishing their new and old identity in two newspapers puts these individuals in continued danger of harm and negates many of the benefits of a new identity. Imagine a family in the Witness Protection Agency being required to publish their new identities in a newspaper…it doesn’t make sense. Advocates of name change reform are trying to change laws based on this warped logic. Some suggested reforms are:

  • Repealing the publication requirement
  • Repeal or amendment of absolute bar to name change on convicted felons
  • Removing cases to Probate Court instead of the congested Court of Common Pleas
  • Streamlining the background check process
  • Removing the judicial hearing requirement

Name-change law in Pennsylvania and many other jurisdictions do not reflect the progress made by LGBT individuals. These laws must be reformed to make legal name change a painless process for a group, which is historically and disproportionately discriminated against.

If you are interested in legally changing your name and are in need of further consultation, please contact Giampolo Law Group at (215) 645-2415.