When you were in junior high, did you ever try signing your first name with the last name of that guy you had a crush on? In real life, taking on a new married name isn't quite so simple. It takes organization, determination, and plenty of patience.
"It's not as clear-cut as you might think," says Chicago lawyer Sandra Murphy, a former president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers who has been practicing for more than 25 years. "Every place has different requirements of how to change. There's no formal time limit—although if you've been married ten years and then suddenly decide to change your name, people might find it a little weird."
The magic document that allows you to change your name is a completed, certified marriage license—something that's only available after the ceremony, so you can't start officially altering your moniker before the big day. Remember to make all your honeymoon reservations in your original name, since that name will be on your passport, driver's license, and credit cards.
You can start getting the word out ahead of time to friends and family (plenty of people will be asking you about it during bridal showers and at the reception). Let your office know, so you'll have new business cards and a new e-mail address when you get back from your honeymoon. You can also order cards engraved with your new married name to send out as thank-you notes—a great way to spread the news to everyone who was involved in the wedding.
The key to a successful, stress-free name change is to take it in steps—and in the right order:
Step 1: Lay Your Hands on That License.
After the wedding, your certified license will either be mailed to you or you'll have to pick it up at a government office (usually the same place you applied for the license). Ask your officiant how it works in your state, or check out About.com's marriage site. Make a stack of photocopies, because you'll be asked to show this "proof of marriage" over and over.
Step 2: Settle Up with Social Security.
"Once you've got the Social Security card, everything flows from there," Murphy says. This part's easy: All you have to do is fill out a simple form, hand over your old card, and a new one will be mailed to you within two weeks. Download the form from Social Security's Web site, ssa.gov, or call 800-772-1213 to have one mailed to you.
Step 3: Tackle Money Matters
Now that Social Security knows about the all-new you, any money you earn should be in that new name. Meet with Human Resources at work to change the name on your paycheck, health insurance, office ID card, and 401k. Then go to your bank to start the name-change process there because the name on your paycheck should match the name on your bank account. Take out extra cash in advance, just in case of bureaucratic mix-ups.
Step 4: Figure Out Your Finances
Once the bank account is changed (and you've ordered new checks), get on the phone to your credit card company, department stores where you have charge cards, and any place you have investments. Usually you can make changes by mail, by sending in a copy of that all-important license. Next, inform any place you owe money (car loan, student loan, etc.). And while you're figuring out that car loan, take care of your car insurance, too.
Step 5: Spread the Word
When you get a new e-mail address at work, send out a quick message to all your contacts (keep it professional, not giddy) and change the voice mail on your telephone to include a brief explanation of the new name. Sign thank-you notes with your new name or even jot a quick note on postcards—then send one to everyone on your wedding guest list. (If you have a fall wedding, you can do this with holiday cards.)
Step 6: Tackle the B-List (whenever)
For the telephone company and other utilities, wait until you get your next bill, then send in a note and a copy of your license along with your payment. Then you can work your way through the rest of the low-priority list: voter registration, passport, magazine subscriptions, alumni associations. And even if you're not an organizational goddess, never fear. It's been almost a year since I got married, and my video-rental card is still in my maiden name.