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Need a name change? Get in line

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Nearly every official document that indicates Inez Navarrette’s identity bears a different spelling of her first name.

There’s Hinez on her birth certificate. Maria Inez on her baptism certificate. Ynez on her marriage certificate and Social Security card. Ynes on her driver’s license.

“The S, the Z, the Y, the H on her birth certificate,” her daughter, Rebecca Navarrette, said. “Nothing is matching.”

And that was never a problem until the 78-year-old attempted to get a new Real ID compliant drivers license.

The spelling complications meant that was impossible. She learned that she would have to petition the courts to have her name legally changed before she could start standardizing the spelling on her documents.

She has been working to correct the problem for nearly two stress- and bureaucracy-filled months. Her eyes welled with tears as she called the ordeal “offensive” before her court hearing on Thursday, where she would officially change her name to Inez.

“I was born here,” she said. “I’ve been a good citizen, and look at me, here.”

With the name formalized, she can start the process to standardize the names on all of the documents she’ll need to get a new license.

Name change cases like Navarrette’s in District Court have nearly tripled from last year, and Real ID appears to be the driving force.

Mary Rodriguez, 76, swears to tell the truth as she goes before District Judge Alan Malott for a name change hearing Thursday so that she can get a driver's license. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Mary Rodriguez, 76, swears to tell the truth as she goes before District Judge Alan Malott for a name change hearing Thursday so that she can get a driver’s license. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The federal Real ID act set strict rules to issue a license and ID cards that can be used for federal purposes. It requires four documents: one proof of ID number (like a Social Security card, W-2 or 1099 tax form); a proof of identity (for example a birth certificate or passport); and two documents showing proof of residency (like insurance forms, pay stubs, mortgage statement or rental documents). And if the names don’t match, the linking document – like a marriage certificate, divorce decree or name change order – is also necessary.

The caseload increase caused by the need for matching Real ID documents hit an understaffed District Court at a time when budgets are stretched thin. Accommodating the extra requests for name change hearings has required a bit of adjustment, but Court Executive Officer Jim Noel said staff is taking steps to handle the increase.

The process requires a $132 filing fee and the cost to publish the name change in a newspaper for two weeks – most people subjected to the process estimated their costs will top $200.

Finally, there’s a court hearing, at which the person asking for the new name has to promise that they are not doing so in order to avoid criminal prosecution, debt or child support payments.

Often the problem stems from typos or spelling errors – one application showed a man trying to add a second F to Jeff. Other times, there’s an inverted first and middle name. Still others reveal completely different names.

 Bernadette Salas-Montano, right, leaves District Court with her son, Alan Montano Jr., left, and her husband Alan Montano Sr., second from left, after a hearing before Judge Alan Malott seeking to change her name. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Bernadette Salas-Montano, right, leaves District Court with her son, Alan Montano Jr., left, and her husband Alan Montano Sr., second from left, after a hearing before Judge Alan Malott seeking to change her name. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“I’m known as Bernadette, but I had to get it changed because my birth name is Dolores,” Bernadette Salas-Montano said after her hearing on Thursday.

She says her parents named her Dolores, but at her baptism a month later, recorded her name as Bernadette, and that stuck – that’s the name on her Social Security card.

She has already missed two and a half days of work trying to get the mismatch corrected, and now she has to wait for new documents before she can finally head to MVD. New Mexico Tax and Revenue Department spokesman Ben Cloutier confirmed that all documents offered to MVD must match the name listed on the court order.

“It was a process,” Salas-Montano said of changing her name to Bernadette, the name she’s always used. “When we came (to the courthouse) I saw, like, five different people filling out this paperwork. I filled it out five times before we got it right.”

Adjusting to the increase has been a process for District Court, too.

Projections show the courthouse may see nearly 1,900 cases by the end of this year, compared with 593 in 2016 and just 492 in 2015.

“We’re already understaffed,” Noel said. “But we’re maintaining and getting them processed as quickly as we can.”

Online court records indicate that a hearing usually takes place four to six weeks after a petition is filed.

Although each filing comes with the $132 fee, Noel said that any assumption that the caseload increase might provide a needed revenue bump for the courts is a “misconception.”

“We’re not enhancing or improving our budget situation through the collection of fees,” Noel said.

The money is partially redirected to the state general fund and partially sent to restricted use funds, Noel said. And he noted that fee waivers are available to those who qualify.

Meanwhile, clerks at the courthouse are seeing more paperwork come through their offices and more citizens asking what they need to do.

And judges are working to find time to hold all of the name change hearings.

“The largest impact is on the judges,” Noel said, “who are seeing an increased number of matters that have to actually appear before them.”

He said clustering the hearings together has proved more efficient, so judges often carve out larger blocks of time to accommodate several people at once, something that’s never been necessary for name changes.

“Historically, they may have had a handful over a month,” he said, “and now they have three times that.”

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