How Do I Change My Name after Marriage or Divorce?

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Issues about names mostly come up when:

  • a child is born,
  • people enter into marriage or are in a longer term committed relationship,
  • people divorce or separate,
  • someone wants to change the name of a child following separation,
  • a name change is important for gender identity,
  • someone wishes to reclaim an Indigenous name, and
  • someone wants to change their name just because they feel like it.

The vast majority of the time in a family law context, name changes are connected to marriage and divorce events.

This guide provides an introduction to changes of name on marriage and divorce, and briefly addresses changes of name under the Name Act .

Naming children after birth[edit]

The provincial Vital Statistics Agency is the government organization that keeps track of people's births, deaths, wills, and names. Under section 3(1) of the Vital Statistics Act, both of the parents must complete a Registration of Live Birth unless one or both of the parents is incapable or deceased, or unless the father is unacknowledged or unknown to the mother. The registration must be delivered to the agency within 30 days of the birth of a child. This process is commonly handled online through the Vital Statistics Agency's Electronic Birth Registration System. Registration must be completed before the child's birth certificate can be issued, but the electronic process is now streamlined to let you also register for Canada Child Benefits (CCB), Social Insurance Number (SIN), and Medial Services Plan (MSP). If the situation is more complicated, however, like when registering a child is already over 1 year old, multiple parents are being recorded, or a surrogacy arrangement has been made, or if you don't have access to an internet-connected computer, you need to contact Vital Statistics directly. They will send you a registration package along with questions to complete.

The basic birth registration information includes:

  • the name of the mother and father (if known and acknowledged),
  • the gender of the child,
  • the date of birth, and
  • the name given to the child.

Under section 4 of the Vital Statistics Act, the child's surname can be:

  • the name of either of the natural parents,
  • the name of one of the parents,
  • a combination of the parents' names, or
  • another name entirely.

If both parents are acknowledged but cannot agree on a surname, the Vital Statistics Act mandates that the child's surname must be a combination of both parents' surnames, either hyphenated or combined in alphabetical order.

In cases where only one parent registers the birth, the law allows for the other parent to be included on the birth certificate and have a say in the child's surname, provided there is no justifiable reason to exclude them. This reflects the principle that both parents should have an opportunity to be involved in naming their child, as established by the Supreme Court of Canada in Trociuk v. British Columbia, 2003 1 S.C.R. 835.

Section 4.1 of the Vital Statistics Act also empowers the courts of British Columbia to change a child's surname when making a declaration of paternity, taking into consideration the best interests of the child.

Now, while you're free to name your child as you wish, there are some limits. You might have heard of Moon Unit Zappa or X Æ A-12 Musk. Under section 9 of the Act, the agency's registrar general has the authority to refuse to register the birth — and consequently to refuse to issue a birth certificate — for children where the registrar general believes:

(a) that the name that the applicant seeks to adopt might reasonably cause mistake or confusion or be a cause of embarrassment or confusion to any other person, or

(b) that the change of name is sought for an improper purpose or is on any other ground objectionable.

While it seems that the registrar general rarely rejects a name, and while such a rejection could be appealed to the Supreme Court, you should still be aware that this power exists.

Changing names[edit]

It is not illegal to use an alias in British Columbia, although you will not be allowed to obtain government identification or to make certain legal transactions, like the transfer of property, using an alias. An alias is a name other than your legal, registered name.

People often use aliases just because that's how people have come to know them, like a nickname, or because their real name is too hard for English-speakers to pronounce or spell easily. Most people who want to legally change their names do so because they were adopted, married, or divorced. Others do so for purely personal reasons. I remember reading a change of name notice for a fellow with the unfortunate name of Donald Duck.

You can apply to have a legal, registered name that differs from your birth or married name under the provincial Name Act. This is a purely paper process and a hearing before a judge won't be necessary in most cases. Section 4 of the act sets out who may apply for a change of name:

(1) Subject to this section, a person who has attained the age of majority or, if the age of majority has not been attained, is a parent having guardianship or custody of his or her child and who is domiciled in British Columbia for at least 3 months, or has resided in British Columbia for at least 3 months immediately before the date of the application, may, unless prohibited by this or another Act, change his or her name on complying with this Act.

(2) If the minister is satisfied that it is in the public interest to do so, the minister may waive the residency requirements of subsection (1).

(3) Subject to subsection (4), a parent having guardianship or custody of an unmarried minor child may, with the consent of all other parents having guardianship and other guardians of the child, apply to change the child's name, but, if the application is to change the child's surname to that of the applicant's spouse, the consent of the spouse is required.

(4) If a person applies to change the name of an unmarried minor child who has attained the age of 12 years, he or she must first obtain the consent in writing of the child.

(5) If a person whose consent is required under this Act

(a) is deceased or mentally disordered or cannot after reasonable, diligent and adequate search be located, or

(b) is, in the opinion of the registrar general, unreasonably withholding his or her consent,

the applicant may, with the approval of the registrar general, proceed with the application without the consent of that person.

(6) If, in the opinion of the registrar general, exceptional circumstances make it unreasonable to seek the consent of a person as required under this Act, the applicant may, with the approval of the registrar general, proceed with the application without the consent of that person.

When your name has been legally changed, the registrar general of the Ministry of Health's Vital Statistics Agency is required to make a notation on your birth certificate and on the registration of any current marriage. After the notation has been made, any future birth, marriage, or death certificates will show the new name. A Certificate of Change of Name will be issued that will allow you to obtain new identification, such as drivers' licences or BC Identification cards, in the new name.

Change of name on marriage[edit]

Many people change their names when they marry. Out of custom, wives often take their husbands' surnames, but there's no requirement that they do so, and there's nothing stopping a husband from taking his wife's surname. The options are wide open for same sex couples.

Choice of name[edit]

On marriage, section 3 of the Name Act allows a spouse to:

(a) use the surname he or she had immediately before the marriage,

(b) use the surname he or she had at birth or by adoption, or

(c) use the surname of his or her spouse by marriage.

This applies to both men and women, and to same sex and opposite sex couples, and no court application is required; the newly-married spouse simply starts using that name. To get identification in the new name, you will have to produce proof of your marriage (the government-issued marriage certificate) and proof of your old name (a driver's licence or BC ID).

The sort of marriage the act is referring to is a legal marriage solemnized by a marriage commissioner or licensed religious official; the rules about change of name on marriage do not apply to common-law relationships, i.e. unmarried spouses.

Hyphenated names[edit]

The Name Act does not deal with situations where spouses wish to take each other's surnames and use a hyphenated name, like Smith-Jones. Spouses who want to adopt a hyphenated name as their legal name will have to follow the Name Act process for obtaining a change of name, described below, to make their new name their registered, legal name.

On the other hand, the new hyphenated name can be used as an alias, the day-to-day name by which most people know you, without a formal change of name. It is not illegal to go by an alias in British Columbia. Note, however, that if you do not apply to have the new name registered as your legal name, you cannot use the alias for legal transactions, such as the transfer of property or obtaining a loan.

Change of name on divorce[edit]

Once an order for divorce or an order declaring the marriage to be a nullity has been made, a former spouse may begin using any legal name they had before marriage. No court application is necessary. Where identification was obtained in the married name or assets were purchased in the married name, a legal change of name will be required.

Orders for change of name[edit]

Where a spouse needs a legal change of name, the spouse may seek an order to this effect in the divorce proceeding and simply claim the change of name as part of what they are asking for in the Notice of Family Claim or Counterclaim.

An application for a change of name can also be dealt with in a separate proceeding altogether, usually by Petition and likely without an oral hearing. An application for a change of both given and last names may be dealt with by a hearing before a judge.

Children's names[edit]

An application for a change of name of the children of the marriage must be made with the consent of the other guardians, even when the person making the application may have custody of the children. (As of writing, the Name Act still used the term custody and had not yet been amended to use the less loaded term decision-making responsibility.) The consent of the affected children must also be obtained where they are 12 or more years old.

Change of name under the Name Act[edit]

If you don't qualify for an automatic change of name, you will have to follow the process outlined in the Name Act to change your name. The Vital Statistics Agency offers an Online Services feature that allows you to apply for a change of name online. It still requires you to print off documents in paper copy and submit them to Vital Statistics. The paper form called an Application for Change of Name can also be completed, and is necessary in cases where, for instance, you are changing the name of a child and your own name. It's not necessary to put an ad in the newspaper to change your name, but you will have to get your fingerprints taken, submit to a criminal records check, and get your statutory declaration properly sworn. Expect a fee to be charged by the police department that takes your fingerprints, and by whomever takes your statutory declaration (could be a notary, lawyer, or Service BC representative).

The process is fairly straightforward and a hearing before a judge is usually not necessary. The steps for most people are as follows:

  1. get the change of name package from the Vital Statistics Agency,
  2. if you're seeking to also change the name of a child, you must obtain the consents of the other guardians, the child (if the child is 12 or more years old), and your present spouse (if you are seeking to change the child's name to that of your spouse),
  3. gather proof of identity, like birth certificates, for everyone affected by the change of name (usually, yourself and any children),
  4. get your statutory declaration sworn before an authorized individual,
  5. go to your local police detachment and submit to fingerprinting (you have to pay a fee for this service, but keep the receipt to submit to the Vital Statistics Agency),
  6. the police will send in all the required information — the identification, the consents, your fingerprints, and so forth — to the agency, along with payment of the agency's fee, and
  7. once your name change has been registered, the fingerprints will be returned to the police for a criminal records check.

Once the agency receives all of this information with their fee, they will begin processing the request. (Bear in mind that the agency's chief executive officer has the authority to refuse to register objectionable names — discussed earlier in this section.) If all is well, the chief executive officer will make the required changes to the birth certificates of the people affected by the application and, if applicable, to any current marriage certificate, and will issue a Certificate of Change of Name.

This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Nate Russell, October 19, 2023.

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