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Here comes the bride's name change

First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then comes the name change challenge.

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Not every bride takes a married name. In fact, says Massachusetts attorney Douglas N. Smith, women are under no legal obligation to do so. But most women do and if you're among that group, you need to know when and how to make the change. Do it incorrectly and it can cost you financially, get you in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service and even damage your credit rating.

First, you have to decide what surname to take. Traditionally, most women still take their husband's names. But it's perfectly legal for him to take hers, says Smith, creator of Bridelaw.com. A newly married woman also can merge her maiden name with her husband's last name to produce a hyphenated moniker. Or as their first marital compromise, the happy couple can each hyphenate their two names or make up a new one altogether.

A name change, regardless of who is making it, is legal provided you don't have fraudulent intent and it doesn't interfere with other people's rights. For example, if you decide to change your name to Barbra Streisand, this might pose a problem for Ms. Streisand (and subsequently for you).

Most women start the process after their honeymoon, but anytime after the ceremony is fine. Just don't try to do it before the fact. "No one will change it before you are legally married," says April Masini, author of the online advice column "Ask April."

Once it's official, prepare yourself for the name-change process by making around 25 copies of your marriage certificate. Not all government agencies or companies require the certificate to change your name, but having a copy can streamline the process.

"Many companies will not ask for your copy of your certificate," Smith says. "Inconveniently, you may find out later that they do require a copy for their records."

Name-change triage
OK, you've chosen your new name, got your certificate copies and are eager to make your married identity official. Where to start? Leah Ingram, author of "Plan Your Wedding in No Time," advises name-change triage: Tackle the most important first and then work your way down the list.

No. 1 on your list is the Social Security Administration, since that government agency needs your correct name and ID number for payroll tax withholdings and retirement benefits. Also, a new Social Security card with your new name can make things easier as you move down the name-change list.

To match your new name with your old number, file Form SS-5 with the Social Security Administration. For more details on the process, check out SSA Publication No. 05-10642 on the office's Web site. If you prefer to get the form via mail, call toll-free (800) 772-1213.

Informing Social Security serves a dual purpose. Within 10 days of getting your name change form, the agency will notify the Internal Revenue Service of your new name.

 
 
Next: "Pay special attention to your creditors."
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