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How Does a Name Change Affect Social Security Benefits?

Keeping records up-to-date will help ensure smooth processing of payments

Social Security Cards, change names

Changing your name? Don't forget Social Security card and identity record updates that go along with it. — Istock

En español | Q: I recently got divorced and I am changing my name. How do I get my new name onto my Social Security card?

A: The first thing to do is collect the documents that prove you have legally changed your name. These might include, in your case, a divorce decree, and in other cases a marriage certificate, a naturalization certificate showing a new name, or a court order name change statement. You may also have to prove your identity and U.S. citizenship, if these are not already on record at the Social Security Administration.

The next step is to fill out an application for a Social Security card (pdf); it's the same form you used to apply for the first time. Deliver the form personally or mail it to your local Social Security office with your documents.

Be aware that all documents must be originals or copies issued by the agency involved. Social Security will not accept photocopies or even notarized copies. Any documents you provide will be returned to you with a receipt. The agency says you should get your new card in about 10 days. It will have the same number as your old card, and it will show your new name.

Q: That all sounds a bit complicated. Do I really need to go to the trouble?

A: Yes. For the smooth administration of present or future benefits, it's important that your name on the card matches your name shown on basic legal documents.

Q: So my card is basically my identity in the Social Security system?

A: Yes! The name and number on the card allow the system to keep track of your lifetime earnings and figure out your retirement and other benefits. The name and number also connect you into American society and institutions at large, which commonly use the number for personal identification. That's yet another reason to make sure that your name is right.

Q: So should I carry my card in my wallet?

A: No. Social Security advises you to leave your card at home. You don't want to risk losing it — identity thieves would find the information on it very useful. The important thing is that you know the number. You'll need it when you fill out such things as job applications and medical forms. In a few instances, such as applying for certain kinds of federal benefits, you'll need to show the actual card, but usually all you need is to know the number.

Q: I'm trying to write a family history and I am looking for the names of my ancestors. Does Social Security have some kind of list of names going way back?

A: Yes. You're referring to what's known as the Death Master File (DMF). It's a list of deaths that Social Security finds out about through its benefits system. It includes basic information about the deceased and at present has more than 87 million names on it. It's used for coordinating the end of benefit payments and combating identity theft. But it also can be very useful in researching family history.

You can buy a copy of the DMF from the National Technical Information Service, which is part of the Commerce Department. The information is offered in several formats (including online searches) at varying costs. For more information, go to this Web page, call the NTIS at 800-363-2068 or send an email to Specific data from the list also is available through various commercial services.

Q: I've heard that Social Security keeps track of the names of the babies born in the United States each year. How do they get those names and what are the most popular baby names?

A: When babies are born in this country, their parents often apply right away for Social Security numbers for their new offspring, thus allowing the agency to collect the names. In 2013, the most popular boy's name was Noah, replacing Jacob, which had held the top spot since 1999. Noah has enjoyed a steady rise — he was in 24th place in 1999. Maybe his triumph last year had something to do with advance publicity for the movie Noah, starring Russell Crowe. The No. 2 name on the 2013 boys' list was Liam, perhaps reflecting the popularity of actor Liam Neeson, who starred in such films as The Chronicles of Narnia and Clash of the Titans.

Databank USA infographic on percentage of people 65+ who rely on SS for 9-0% of their income.

Click infographic map to view larger image.

Liam was followed in order by Jacob, Mason, William, Ethan, Michael, Alexander, Jayden and Daniel.

The changes in the girls' list were less dramatic. Sophia remained No. 1 for the third year. She was followed in order by Emma, Olivia, Isabella, Ava, Mia, Emily, Abigail, Madison and Elizabeth. Although Sophia tops the list, she may have a rival coming up to challenge her: Another Sofia — this one spelled with an "f" — has reached No. 13 on the list and is moving up.

Social Security administrators noticed a rise in 2013 in the popularity of two pop-culture names: Jayceon and Daleyza. Jayceon Taylor, a rapper, is the star of the VH1 cable show Marrying the Game. And preschooler Daleyza Hernandez appears on the Spanish-language reality TV series Larrymania.

Social Security has a Web page about names that lets you go much deeper into the subject and search the popularity of specific names in past years and specific states. The database goes all the way back to 1880.

Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the Social Security Mailbox archive. If you don't find your answer there, send an email to the Social Security Mailbox.

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