Generally, a name defines an individual. It is a sense of who you are and how you represent yourself in the world. However, when a person feels that his or her name no longer represents who they are as a person, or when a same-sex couple marries in a state that does not recognize marriage equality, one must undergo the legal process of a name change in order to officially update legal identity documents, including driver’s license, passport, a marriage certificate and deeds to real property.
Under Pennsylvania law, an individual seeking a legal name change for reasons other than marriage (with the exception of same-sex couples), divorce or adoption must file a petition with the Court of Common Pleas for the county in which they reside. Accordingly, they must also submit to a criminal background check to ensure that the name change is not to avoid civil or criminal judgments. As if those requirements were not enough, the individual must also publish notice of the name-change petition in two local newspapers of general circulation and, depending on the county, submit to a hearing where a judge asks questions regarding the intent of the name change.
These requirements come with significant obstacles for individuals in the LGBT community.
In addition to the emotional toll, the time spent and the length of the process itself (which is sometimes enough to dissuade LGBT individuals from completing the process), individuals are subject to an excessive cost burden as well. Each name change costs approximately $900 in filing fees, judgment searches and publication costs. Moreover, if the individual has lived in any other county over the past five years, she or he needs to contact the county clerk in that county and obtain additional judgment searches done at a cost of approximately $75 each. These costs are assuming that the individual is a pro se petitioner and proceeded without the help of an attorney. Having an attorney assist in this process can tack on an additional $500-$750 in fees, but can save the individual countless hours of frustration. In sum, with the assistance of an attorney, an LGBT individual could pay up to $1,500 in costs for a name change.
Beyond the cumbersome financial, emotional and time requirements, there are also significant and often-paralyzing stigmatic effects that result from the process. The need to publish the name-change petition in two local newspapers poses a problem for some, especially transgender individuals, due to fear of threats of discrimination and violence.
Advocates for updating Pennsylvania’s name-change law, including myself, say the law should reflect neighboring states’ legislation, which has been revised and streamlined. Suggested modifications to the legislation include the following:
• Removing the ban on people convicted of certain felonies or on parole/probation. New Jersey is progressive in that it only requires that if a person is under indictment or convicted, the petitioner make best efforts to notify the prosecuting agency.
• Moving the process to probate court, as is done in Ohio, Connecticut and Alabama, to make the process faster and potentially less expensive, due to the docket congestion in Court of Common Pleas.
• Removing the publication requirement, as many states do not require this and it greatly enhances the cost.
• Removing the fingerprint and the judgment search requirements, and replacing it with a bundled civil-criminal background check as is done in other states. This would reduce the time burden on petitioners and the cost.
In sum, the Pennsylvania name-change legislation needs an overhaul to bring it up to speed with present-day technologies and, in turn, would benefit members of the LGBT community, who tend to face the most prejudice in going through this process to legitimize their true selves or their relationships.
Angela D. Giampolo, principal of Giampolo Law Group, maintains offices in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and specializes in LGBT law, business law, real-estate law and civil rights. Her website is www.giampololaw.com and she maintains two blogs, www.phillygaylawyer.com