Amy and I got married Christmas Eve, and as soon as the work week began, my beautiful and enthusiastic bride slipped on her three-inch stiletto heels and strode off to the local Social Security office to officially register her new name with the government.
This wasn't a whim. Amy has various professional licenses that will have to be changed. But she's organized, this one. She had done her research weeks ahead. She downloaded forms and instructions from the Social Security website and collected the necessary documents. When she got to the SS office, she was armed with neatly-filled-out forms and all the required papers: driver's license, Social Security card, and marriage license.
So she walked into the office, little suspecting she was falling down a rabbit hole. She took a number. After 40-some numbers and an hour had passed, she got her turn.
She told the man behind the counter she wanted to change her name on her Social Security Card. He asked her for her documentation: old SS card, check; drivers license, check; identification of some sort with her new name on it ... huh?
"But that's why I'm here," she said. "To officially have my name changed with the government before I make the change elsewhere."
"OK," he said, "but in order to process your name change we require you to present some form of identification that shows your new name."
"Oh, that's no problem," she said, relieved. "I have my marriage certificate right here ...."
"No, I'm afraid that in Pennsylvania we cannot accept your marriage certificate as proof of a name change."
"Because you don't have to show identification to obtain a marriage license in Pennsylvania."
Now, when we went down to the Courthouse last month to get a wedding license form, we both had to show picture ID. She told him this.
"No," he insisted. "We've sent people from our office, undercover, to apply for a license and they didn't have to show ID. We need to see your new driver's license, or a new ID card from your employer showing your new name."
And she didn't have either of those, of course. Her HR department at work had told her they wouldn't record her name change until she gave them a new Social Security card. Catch 22 there.
As for the driver's license, she had done her research there, too. She could have gotten a new license from the Pennsylvania DMV simply by filling out a form requesting a change of name. Presto-chango, no proof of marriage required.
So on the scale of verification, private employer ranks high, state authorities rank low -- and Social Security, the federal government itself (currently in a Great War on Terrorism) ranks lowest, willing to rely on the unreliable state for proof of identification.
Amy tried explaining all this to the man behind the counter, but he wasn't terribly interested. It was Friday afternoon and no doubt he had an eye on the clock. He shuffled her papers a bit, then finally he looked up at her (she's long and lean, and did I mention beautiful?) and said with a sigh, "Alright, I'm going to take pity on you. I'm going to process your name change, even though you don't have all the proper documentation."
And he did. And without even looking at the official Social Security form she had filled out and certainly not looking at our marriage license.
"Was this really the way a post 9/11 American government was supposed to be operating," she wondered. "Where were the careful security measures, where was the record-keeping, the checking and double-checking?
Frankly, she could have told the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles that her new name was Bite Me Buttercup bin Laden, and they would have mailed her a driver's license template to that effect in a week or two. By now, she could have been anyone she wanted, in the Social Security system, based on a whim, or, gods forbid, some darker motive.
"What would it have mattered whether I gave the man at the Social Security office my new last name verbally, as I did, or whether he read it on a new driver's license obtained from the DMV, which would have done essentially the same thing this man did and simply taken my word for it when I told them my new last name?"