Submitted by Robert Mues with legal research and assistance from Aaron Hill, an extern from the University of Dayton School of Law.
Some cases of domestic violence are so severe that an identity change may seem to be the only solution. At first glance, changing one’s social security number and name is an enticing proposition. However, there are a number of very serious consequences to consider before taking this drastic step.
Negative Consequences to Changing Your Identity and Social Security Number:
The effects of changing one’s identity and social security number are lasting. The victim is essentially eliminating any connection with his/her prior life and literally starting from scratch. The victim loses all professional and academic credentials, past credit history (good or bad), and loss of interaction with family and friends of the victim. This, in turn, makes it incredibly difficult to find a new career, buy a house or rent an apartment, obtain any type of insurance, or safely contact any former friends or family. Any transaction or event that requires identifying information will be inconvenient at the very least. Without job references, educational credentials, and credit history, it will be difficult to provide for oneself. Such extreme consequences is part of the reason less than 1,000 people undergo this identity change each year. In my opinion, it is important to exhaust every other available option before deciding to pursue this extreme option. Additionally, even after a person that resorted to this procedure, the effect of a federal law called “The Real ID Act” might undermine the effort.
The Real ID Act and Address Confidentiality Programs:
The Real ID Act is a new federal law that at present is to be implemented by the States by December, 2009. There have been fierce battles over the law between Homeland Security, privacy advocates and the States that oppose the demands of the Real ID Act. The act requires States to set up systems that will encode accurate personal information on the face of the card/license and enter the information into data banks shared by States and the federal government. The minimum information that must be on a Real ID driver’s license includes the person’s full legal name, the person’s date of birth, the person’s gender, as well as the person’s address of principle residence.
So how would this law impact a victim of domestic violence? The new regulations of the Act provide an exception that “A DMV may apply an alternate address on a driver’s license or identification card if the individual’s address is entitled to be suppressed under state or federal law or suppressed by a court order including an administrative order issued by a state or federal court.” In order to protect victims of domestic violence, roughly half of American States have created Address Confidentiality Programs (ACPs). The ACP can create a “dummy” address for the victim so the driver’s license or ID card wouldn’t divulge a person’s real address for a former abuser to potentially obtain. So, in the states with ACP’s, the victim might be able to get by with the “dummy” address on the license and entered into the data system. Ohio is one of the States that unfortunately does not have such a program. In those states without ACP’s the person’s true address might need to be entered into the “system”. While some of the original concerns of advocates for victims of domestic violence, such as the National Network to End Domestic Violence, have been reduced by the exception regulation added to the law, the organization is still very concerned. Cindy Southworth, technology project director for the NNEDV, says “given that there are less than six degrees of separation between most abusers and a friend or relative who works for the DMV, we are concerned about victim’s location information housed in State databases that could be searched nationally.” It is still unclear as to what information will be exchanged among the State-to-State databases and how it will be secured. This leaves lingering doubts as to the security of personal information for victims of domestic violence even in states with ACPs. To learn more about the NNEDV click here.
The Real ID Act as Applied to Ohio and Social Security Number Changes:
As indicated above, Ohio is one of the States that does not have an Address Confidentiality Program. The remedies for victims of domestic violence under Ohio law are limited to civil and criminal protection orders (CPO). Ohio’s domestic violence CPO statute does not address the issue of address confidentiality. However, as a matter of practice, courts in Ohio allow the victim to use an alternate address for court papers in order to keep his/her address confidential. It is also common to allow the victim to use an alternate address as the victim’s address on the CPO petition itself. In Ohio, it is not common that a probate judge when issuing a name change entry to include in the order language that the prior identity of the applicant is to be suppressed. As discussed earlier, the Real ID Act will still allow address confidentiality if it complies with a state or federal law, or the confidentiality was court ordered. The practice in Ohio does not fall into either category. In Ohio, the court does not order the address to be confidential, but rather extends it as an option. Therefore, domestic violence victims in Ohio do not have as many options as residents of other States to keep their addresses from falling into the hands of their abusers.
In severe cases of domestic violence, victims do have the option of changing their identity and social security number. If I were considering that action, I would first look to move to a State with an ACP and consult with them first to learn the protections they can offer before thinking of the drastic identity change. To see a list of the States with ACPs click here.
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Robert L. Mues
Robert Mues is the managing partner of Dayton, Ohio, law firm, Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues, and has received the highest rating from the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review for Ethical Standards and Legal Ability. Mr. Mues is also a founding member of the "International Academy of Attorneys for Divorce over 50" blog.