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Just-married guide to changing your name on credit cards

By Adrienne Samuels-Gibbs

How to change your name on a credit card

Marriage brings plenty of change, and for many women (and a few men), the first one is your name. But change isn't always easy, and switching your name on credit cards, Social Security cards, bank accounts and various other bills is no exception.

According to a 2005 study, 77 percent of women change their surname after marriage. Most do it because it is an "entrenched tradition" or out of loyalty to their spouses, says University of Florida professor Diana Boxer, who conducted the study on women who change their name after marriage. Also, the Lucy Stone League, a women's rights organization dedicated to name retention for men and women, says 3 million women a year change their surnames after marriage in the United States.

Here's the skinny on the proper way to change your surname so that your credit and charge card accounts are up to date and reflect the same name you have on file with your financial institutions, the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration.  

5 steps to changing your name

  1. Take your marriage certificate to your local Social Security Administration office. Fill out a new form for an SSA card with your new name. Once an SSA agent approves the documentation, your new Social Security card will arrive in the mail within four weeks. Don't leave your marriage certificate with the SSA agent. If you are a man who is changing his name after marriage, however, you may have to hire a lawyer, as some states require a court hearing, petitions and fees before a man is allowed to adopt his wife's last name. Contact your county's department of public safety or county courthouse to find out if your state allows a name change for men after marriage without legal wrangling. 
  2. Call your utility company or cell phone company and get one or two bills immediately changed to reflect your new last name. You can usually do this by phone. If they need proof, provide a copy of your marriage certificate. It will take at least one billing cycle before the bill reflects your new name. When it arrives, keep one with you in case you are asked for additional proof of your name change in the coming months.
  3. Update your bank accounts. You probably will be asked to provide a copy of your marriage certificate. If you use direct deposit, be sure to inform your employer of your new name. If not, your check might be delayed in being deposited to your bank account. Order new checks and new bank debit and credit cards as well.
  4. Head to your local department of motor vehicles once your Social Security card arrives and change your name on your driver's license or state identification card. In some states, you can do this with just your marriage certificate and Social Security number. In other states, you may have to bring additional documentation -- such as a utility bill or bank statement -- reflecting your married name. (By now, you should have at least one bill or bank statement with your new name.) Here are the marriage laws by state, along with county clerk offices' telephone numbers, in case you have any questions.
  5. Call or write your credit card issuers and request a name change when your driver's license (or state identification) and financial accounts reflect your new name. While you can begin this process earlier, it's best to wait to change the name on your credit cards until you have matching identification and financial institution information. That way you can avoid any credit card processing, billing or payment errors or mix-ups. Eight issuers surveyed by CreditCards.com said it was OK to just call in with a request. Three more suggested mailing a written request along with a copy of the marriage certificate."We get these questions all the time," says Beth Charlton, spokeswoman for Macy's, which offers a store charge card. "It's very simple. Most of this can be handled on the telephone. All the bride has to do is make a phone call to our customer service department." Cover your bases by sending your name change request in writing, along with your account number, full name and any address change. Only send a copy of your marriage certificate if your issuer requests it. Keep a copy of the correspondence for your records.
Security tips to consider when changing your name

Changing your name on your credit card accounts is surprisingly -- and some say -- disturbingly easy. To protect yourself against identity theft, the FTC recommends against using common security questions such as your mother's maiden name to help secure your account but suggests using passwords instead.

According to the FTC’s website: "Avoid using easily available information, like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. When opening new accounts, you may find that many businesses still have a line on their applications for your mother's maiden name. Ask if you can use a password instead."

A word on joint credit for newlyweds
Sometimes both spouses will have credit accounts with the same issuers. However, getting married and changing your name doesn't automatically join those accounts. Most issuers won't "merge" accounts simply because you get married, but they do offer the opportunity to cancel one card and add the spouse as an "authorized user" on another card.

For example, at Chase, the customer must decide if she wants to open a new line of joint credit or if she wants to add her spouse to an existing line of credit. Chase spokeswoman Gail Hurdis says there are two options: Add your spouse as an authorized user who is not liable for repayment of the credit card bill, but the credit card history will show up on their credit report; or add the spouse as a "liable party," which makes them legally responsible for paying off the account. The "liable party" process is similar to applying for new credit because Chase will pull a credit report before authorizing the new spouse as a secondary cardholder for the original account.

Joint credit can be tricky when two people are involved. It's well documented that, for most married couples, one person has a better credit rating than the other. Experts recommend keeping credit accounts separate if your spouse is your "credit opposite" (meaning your credit score is much better or worse than your spouse's). However, if you want to help your spouse get a better credit score, experts recommend adding him as an authorized user on an account. That way, they get to "borrow" your credit history and boost their own credit history (See 12 debt questions to ask before getting married) This controversial technique is known as 'piggybacking' and is frequently used, for example, by parents to help college students build credit.

Deborah Ames Naylor, card services spokeswoman for the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, which offers credit cards to its members, says couples should be very clear about the pros and cons of adding secondary cardholders to accounts -- even if they're married. Name loyalty is important to some people, but it might be better to maintain individual credit lines that reflect the newlyweds' individual names.

"I, personally, would not recommend closing all individual accounts if they are good established accounts (i.e., pay on time, not run up to the credit limit,)" says Naylor. "For example, if the account had been open for six years and had a limit of $5,000 with only a $500 balance, and payments have been on time, this shows good credit history -- it is building at least six years to your credit history, and the debt utilization is low at only 10 percent."

Close that account in the name of marriage, Naylor says, and "credit scores start decreasing." It's far better in that instance, she says, to simply change the name on the account and maintain the separate credit card.

Macy's is happy to "merge" two accounts into one for a newlywed couple, but to the department store giant, that means one of your accounts must be closed. Once you pay the balance and the account is closed, you lose the perks, the credit line and even the special coupons generated by that account. Your credit report will also be updated to reflect that you closed a line of credit, which may ding your credit score.

"As you look at the two accounts, you want to choose the one with the most perks on it to keep," says Beth Charlton, director of issue management and special projects with Macy's. "One may have the red card that doesn't have many perks to it and the other has the platinum card that might have more. So they really need to evaluate where they've got the best advantage on the card that they choose to keep."

Of course, experts say, you don't have to combine accounts at all.

See related: 12 debt questions to ask before getting married, Hiding credit card debt, Piggybacking your way out of bad credit

Published: October 7, 2008


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