Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt, The Strenuous Life

Recent trends are causing new problems with our identification.  For example, as of 2011, birth certificates issued by American jurisdictions that do not list the parents of the applicant no longer constitute proof of citizenship for issuance of a passport. This is a problem for people applying for passports and can be one for those who hold U.S. passports but fail to renew them.

Lawyers and financial advisers ask about estate planning, but seldom check whether the client has adequate documentation of their identification. Here is a short check list to make sure you have the basics covered.


1. Is the name you are using the same on the most recent of the following documents: name change order, order of dissolution or divorce, marriage license, and birth certificate? If not, it is time to visit the local court house. This is the kind of law, petitioning to change your name, for which you should not need a lawyer in many jurisdictions. In Washington, the courts of limited jurisdiction often have simple forms available.

2. Do you have adequate proof of citizenship or other proof of your right to be in the United States? As stated earlier, if your proof of birth does not list your parents, it is time to contact the state or territory where you were born to get a new certificate of birth. This can take many weeks, and should be done even if you have no immediate need for a passport.

3. Are all your important records under the same name? These include your legal name as established by the documents listed in item no. 1 above, your academic records, your certificate of citizenship if applicable, licenses you hold, your social security and tax records, and your business and credit records.

4. Can you prove citizenship to a country other than the United States? Some Americans  enjoy citizenship to more than one nation. Dual citizens may not wish to take any action to prove a second citizenship, and that is fine. Reasons might include the need for U.S. government security clearances, which can be impossible to acquire if you have exercised rights as a foreign national while an American. But proving citizenship to a country can take a long time, and can grow in difficulty as ancestors die and records and memories of residences fade. It is silly to wish to move somewhere immediately and find it will take you a year or more to do it when a little advance work at your leisure would have made the move easy and quick.

Because of changes in the documentation required by the United States to cross the U.S./Canada border a few years ago, I realized that the documents I had did not allow travel between the two countries, despite being a citizen of both.  My decision to get an enhanced driver’s license was a good one, but the state would only issue it with my name as it appeared on my U.S. Certificate of Citizenship. That name was different than the one I use. It was different than the one on my state licenses, credit records, real estate holdings, and even different than the one on my social security records.  I would not have been able to use my license as identification with credit cards or even in court to prove I was a lawyer – the bar association records would not have matched my common picture identification. So I obtained a new birth certificate; the old one was not valid and had not been since 1994. I then changed my name to the one I use for all other purposes and applied for the enhanced driver’s license. I recently obtained a passport using the name that is mine for all purposes. The benefits are personal, but also inure to my survivors. They can prove that the guy named on my death certificate is the same dude that holds various assets without resorting to affidavits or worse (because more costly, difficult, risky, and time-consuming), going to court to have a judge decide the two names used to identify me were for the same person. Note that taking care of identification problems now is easier and cheaper than waiting until you or your survivors need a lawyer arguing in court to sort things out.

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