What’s In A Name?

By Tracy Fischer

When a couple marries one of the big decisions made initially will be…. what last name the female spouse will use. There may be a difference of opinion that will need to be ironed out.  Will she keep her maiden name, will she take her new husband’s name or will the name be hyphenated? Many women see this change as an exciting rite of passage.  What impact will this name have on the children they hope to have.  This decision has a far- reaching impact that is often not considered at the time when the relationship is happy and the marriage is intended to last forever.

Some women look at their last name as a key part of their identity.  Others may have always disliked their original last name because of spelling complications or not like the sound of it and be very excited to take a new name.  Some may feel that the transition from their family of origin to a new family with their new partner will be solidified by having the same name.

If a couple then later decide to divorce, again the female spouse will have a decision to make.  Should she keep the name she is used to, may be using professionally and is the same as her children? Should she return her maiden name immediately, which may be a time consuming and paper-ridden process?

There are many conflicting emotions to contend with; a sense of loss for what could have been or excitement for what the future will bring.  How will the change of a name affect her children? Should she wait, might she remarry again?  On top of the many changes that divorce brings, some positive and some negative, to change your name is a very outward manifestation of an extremely painful period.  A private life experience that only good friends and family may be aware of is now public.  Complete strangers and work colleagues are now privy to the changes going on in your life.

As a mediator, I always ask whether a spouse would like to return to her former maiden name.  Often the spouse is not sure if they want to make the change, especially as they are dealing with a myriad of other major life decisions.   If  the request is made on the Petition for Divorce to resume the former maiden name and entered into the Judgment of Divorce, that spouse will then have the legal ability to change their name.  It does not have to be changed immediately, but when that person is ready, they will be able to use the divorce decree to change their name without further court proceedings.  If this is not done, and then several years later the individual is ready to change her name, a full Change of Name Petition will have to be filed which involves court costs, attorney fees and the necessity to publish notice of the name change.

One might anticipate that a spouse who has a hyphenated last name might want to maintain that name, especially if children are involved.  It incorporates the same name as the parties’ children and also the former maiden family name.  I have recently found that not to be the case.  A recent mediation client was very anxious to drop her hyphenated name and return to her maiden name.  She made a point to tell me that hyphenating her name was a bad decision in the first place and had caused countless problems over the years.  The problems for her, to name a few: many data entry forms on line do not have fields for hyphenated names, her records are constantly misfiled as it can be filed under either name and most businesses/physicians find it very difficult to look up her records.  Who would think that a decision to blend a family name and a new married name would cause so much trouble!

The process to change ones name back to a former maiden name can seem daunting.  To begin the process the Judgment of Divorce is required, which states on it the name the person is returning to.  The first place start is Social Security by procuring a social security card with a new name.  This is accomplished by first filling out an Application for a New Social Security Card. The application must be taken in person to the local Social Security office along with a Certified Copy of the Judgment of Divorce from the Probate Court showing the ability to resume the former maiden name.  In addition a document is needed to prove your identity such as a current driver’s license or passport.  These documents must be original, so going in person to the local Social Security office makes most sense.  Social Security will not accept copies of the identification documents.

Once the new Social Security card is issued with the new name, the next step would be to use the new card to change the name on the Massachusetts driver’s license and U.S. Passport.  It is important to make sure all these documents have a consistent name.  The Social Security Administration notifies the IRS.  Then all bank accounts, life and health insurance policies, retirement accounts and credit cards will need to be updated.

There are women who go through this process more than once with a divorce and following remarriage.  The choice to take a new name, resume a former name, retain a family name or even to hyphenate a name are significant and important decisions that should be made with a great deal of consideration towards the future.