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Legal name is a term used to mean slightly different things depending on context:

  • Your Wallet name -- the name that appears on your government ID.
  • The name you are primarily known by in legal or business contexts.
  • Any name you legally have the right to use -- such as a peerage title.

Because of the different definitions, it is not recommended to use this term without clearly defining which you mean.

In many legal systems it is entirely possible, and in fact likely to have more than one legal name. Consider that even in Western culture that many people have a middle name (a third word in their name), but only go by one given name and a surname in almost every circumstance and even on some ID cards. Likewise, people with four or more words in their name may often find that many official systems do not support the use of more than two or three of their names.

In common law

In common law countries (including the US, Canada, Australia, etc) it is legal to use any name you wish, without having to do any paperwork, as long as you are not using the name for an otherwise illegal purpose.

The relevant US law is:

One may be employed, do business, and enter into other contracts, and sue and be sued under any name they choose at will (Lindon v. First National Bank 10 F. 894, Coppage v. Kansas 236 U.S. 1, In re McUlta 189 F. 250).
Such a change carries exactly the same legal weight as a court-decreed name change as long as it is not done with fraudulent intent (In re McUlta 189 F. 250, Christianson v. King County 196 F. 791, United States v. McKay 2 F.2d 257).