The Cost of Legally Changing Your Name

by Kate McKean

The biggest decision I had to make while I planned my wedding was not about the venue or dress or guest list. It was about my name. Would I change it? Legally? Professionally? None of the above? I went back and forth our entire 14-month engagement. I didn’t have to. Most, but not all, of my married friends have not changed their names. I like my name. One of my ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence. My name has great consonance. Kate McKean.

But I’m Southern and somewhat traditional, at least when it comes to this. I always imagined I would have the same name as my husband and children, even though I never felt I had to. My husband was firmly in the “whatever you want” camp, to his great credit, though I knew he liked the idea of being The Landons as much I did. I have the absurd fantasy of future family Christmas cards in matching sweaters in front of a fireplace with a golden retriever (which we will never have because I’m allergic), curly overlaid text that says The Landons. I know I don’t need to legally change my name to have that Christmas card, but I wanted it to exist without an asterisk. I didn’t want to be the odd man out in my own family, with a different name.

Over the last ten years, though, I have built a career as a literary agent with my name. Kate McKean is on Twitter and has been mentioned in the New York Times and is in the acknowledgments of upwards of 100 books. A reporter from an NPR news show called me for a quote on something book related and said he got to me just by googling “literary agent.” Kate Landon is nowhere (except where I’m squatting on variations of other Twitter handles). It would not be difficult to get my friends and colleagues to call me Kate Landon, or change social media handles. I know dozens of women in publishing who’ve seamlessly made the switch. But it totally blows my SEO. Kate McKean earned all this, and I want Kate McKean to keep it.

And thus, I am hedging my bets and will change my name personally, but not professionally. I have dropped my middle name, and replaced it with my maiden name. Apparently this is the most complicated thing in the world, or at least in the state of New York. All I wanted to do was go from Catharine Leggat McKean to Catharine McKean Landon. Simple, right? No.

Marriage license, plus two extra copies, “just in case:” 45 minutes to pick it up, $55 for license ($35) and copies ($20)

Petition for Individual Adult to Change Name form, notarized: 48 minutes at a different courthouse, $0

Petition for Individual Adult to Change Name form, notarized, take two: 63 minutes back to that courthouse to get a different form notarized because the internet had given me the wrong form and it was going to cost me over $200 to use the form I had, which was only good in Brooklyn Supreme Court and I was in Manhattan, where is would cost me $65. Cost: $0

Petition filing:54 minutes to take my notarized petition to another different courthouse to file it with the judge, pay the man, and schedule the hearing that I didn’t know would take place a full week later; $65 (in cash), plus $2 in ATM fees

Eating my feelings and frustrations at McDonald’s: 27 minutes, $7.61

SUBTOTAL: 3 hours and 57 minutes, $129.61

When I was filing my petition that I found out about the Spousal Consent Form. Not only would I have to physically appear before a judge so he could grant my middle name change, my then husband of 13 days had to sign and notarize a form to tell the judge it was A-ok with him what I did with my middle name. I was livid. Not that my husband cared either way about my middle name, what about other spouses who were jerks? The best part is that it’s not a legally required form. The judge can ask to see it at his or her discretion. I wanted to march on City Hall and demand justice.

I went back and forth the week before my hearing. Would I take a stand about the form? A friend said that she was told she wouldn’t get a hearing date without the form. I’d gotten a hearing but who knew what else could happen if I didn’t follow the rules, even if it wasn’t law? I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to make the process run as smoothly as I could. My husband signed the form and got it notarized. I had already invested so much emotion, time, and money in this issue, I couldn’t face risking it all for this (minor? perceived? what adjective really goes here?) injustice. I sucked it up. I hate that I did.

My hearing was that next Friday. It would be the second day off work I’d take to do this, but luckily, I’m in charge of my own schedule and I answered email and read manuscripts in lines and waiting rooms. God help those who want to do this who can’t just take off work.

I show up to that third courthouse and go to the hearing room. I show the bailiff my forms, including the spousal consent form, and she checks my name off a list and tells me to sit down. SHE DOES NOT TAKE THE SPOUSAL CONSENT FORM. I sit down. I read for one hour and 45 minutes and then the clerk announces that if we have not heard our name called, our name change has been approved and we can pick up our signed forms from the bailiff. The judge did not ask for the spousal consent form. It’s done. I do not have to defend my choices to a judge. I don’t have an opportunity to tell the judge what I think of the spousal consent form. All my rage was wasted. But my name is changed.

SUBTOTAL II: 1 hour, 45 minutes plus $18 celebratory/consolation sushi lunch

I am given instructions on how to post my name change in the newspaper. I fax my forms to the Irish Times (15 minutes, $3) at a Chinese pharmacy near the courthouse and play phone tag with the lady with the awesome Irish accent to confirm receipt of the fax and give her my credit card number for the fee ($35, 20 minutes total). In a few days, they will send me an affidavit that affirms my name change has been published which I can take back to courthouse #3 to get certified and then buy other certificates ($6 each) to show the DMV, Social Security Administration, and Passport Agency that yes, for real, my name is now Catharine McKean Landon (another day off work, $12.50, free, $135 respectively, for new documents.)


And then what? I will order those damn Christmas cards and borrow someone’s dog. I will sign my personal credit card receipts Kate Landon. I will be able to deposit checks made out to Kate McKean with as little fuss as possible. I think this might make it easier come tax time to file jointly, but I haven’t even begun to research that, god help us.

But professionally, which takes up 80% of my waking hours, I’ll be Kate McKean. If my name is ever on a literary agency, it will be the McKean Literary Agency, not the Landon Literary Agency, because, no offense to my lovely husband, a McKean earned that. Any articles or books I publish (fingers crossed) will be by Kate McKean. When the other places I work (including Writer’s Digest and NYU) write a check to Kate McKean (because they will never, ever be able to pay Kate Landon but employ Kate McKean) I can easily deposit it. According to my bank, “as long as there’s McKean on your account somewhere” they’re good. I like getting paid with as few hassles as possible. I think Kate Landon will look back on this whole headache and thank Kate McKean for that alone.

GRAND TOTAL: $332.61

All told, changing my name cost be about three days work and over $300. I am lucky to have the privilege and ability to make this happen to suit myself in my personal and professional life.

I’ll send you a Christmas card.

Kate McKean is a writer and a literary agent at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency in Brooklyn.

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