What’s in a Name

What’s in a name?  You would be surprised with the number of people who use a name other than their legal name and who aren’t even sure what their legal name is.

Knowing your legal name can be quite important, particularly when it comes to drafting legal documents, such as a last will and testament, financial power of attorney, or advanced health care directive.  You don’t want your legal document to say “Jane A. Smith,” when your real name is “Ruth J. Smith.”

Clients will also tell me that their daughters’ names include their maiden name when the child’s real name does not include the maiden name.  For instance, Jane Smith’s daughter, Mary, may have married Fred Jones.  Mrs. Smith will tell me that her daughter’s name is Mary Smith Jones, when, in reality, her name is Mary Jones.  The client might say, “Just put S as her middle initial for Smith,” when Mary may have a true middle name given to her at birth.

Some people use a confirmation name as a middle name.  Some people just use nicknames as real names.

All of these idiosyncrasies involving names can cause problems.  If a person’s power of attorney says “Jane A. Smith,” but their real name if “Ruth J. Smith” and all or some of their documents (birth certificate, driver’s license, marriage certificate) confirm the real name, the agent under of the power of attorney might have problems using the power of attorney that identifies the principal as “Jane A. Smith.”

Obviously, one of the best ways to combat these issues would be to use your real name at all times and if you like a nickname just use the nickname in your interpersonal deals, not legal dealings, such as legal documents and opening bank accounts.  But life being what it is, people will continue to mix up their pseudonyms with their real names, and they will use their pseudonyms for so long and so pervasively that, eventually, they will forget what their pseudonym ends and their real name begins.

So how do I draft legal documents for clients who aren’t sure what their legal names are?  When the client comes to my office, she should think about her name.  She should review her legal identification documents, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates.  She should review her financial statements.  What name do bank statements come in?

The Will, the power of attorney, and the advanced health care directive should take into consideration the names the client uses.  For instance, the Will might read “Ruth S. Smith, aka Jane A. Smith.”  It may be better to simply not use a middle initial if the middle initial is in question.  If Mrs. Smith lives at 11 King Street, Middletown, New Jersey, then the document could just read “Ruth Smith, of 11 King Street ….”   If you identify her with that much specificity, I doubt a bank would give Mrs. Smith’s power of attorney agent a problem if a middle initial were missing.

The important thing is to address the name issue in the documents.  While family members may be able to overcome name discrepancies, it’s certainly easier to just address the name discrepancy in the document itself.