Recently a newly single mom messaged me: “Can you please write about what to do about your last name after you divorce? I don’t want to share my name with my ex-husband any more, but my two young sons were devastated at the thought that I would have a different name than them. They said, ‘Mommy, we’re a tribe.’ I see their point. What should I do?”
I’m a huge advocate of women keeping their birth names when they marry. (Notice I didn’t say, “maiden name.” Ever think about how sexist that is?) The reasons have been well argued: You are an adult woman who is not property of your husband. You have a history of your own, a professional identity and public identity that is linked deeply to your name. Plus, duh, you and every other member of Western culture has an excellent chance of divorce.
I asked for others’ experiences with their surnames following the demise of marriage. The accounts I received were touching, funny, painful and human — much like the human relationships that shape them.
What to consider if you’re considering a name change after divorce:
Careful with being creative! When Bonnie Russell of San Diego, Calif., divorced, she was compelled to change her name back to her birth name, but when her young children protested, she acquiesced. “At first, I went with what the kids wanted, although having a last name I didn’t want at all, bothered me,” Russell says. “Later, I decided to drop my married and birth names, figuring if a first-name only was good enough for Madonna and Cher, why not me?”
She quickly learned the answer to that question. When she received her new Social Security card, it read: BONNIE NLN.
She called her local Social Security office and asked, What is NLN?
“They answered, ‘No Last Name,'” Russell recalls. “I soon found everyone needing my identification thought “NLN” was my last name.” Tired of explaining the pickle, Russell officially changed her name to her birth name — Russell.
For the children Michelle Faulkner, of Reading, Mass., kept her married name partly for professional consistency, “but mostly because I wanted to have the same last name as my children, who were 3 and 5 at the time,” she says. “Divorce was confusing enough for children that age; I didn’t want their friends and school to have the additional confusion of a different last name for their mom. I may marry again in the next year or two, and I won’t change my name if I do — for the same reasons.”
Made married name her own When Sandra LaMorgese divorced 9 years ago, her career as a speaker and author was just gaining momentum. “If I returned to using my maiden name, it would’ve been like starting from scratch,” she says. “So I kept LaMorgese, however, I innovated. My ex-husband’s family pronounces LaMorgese the American way: la-mor-jez. I made it my own by pronouncing it the Italian way: la-mor-gaze-ee.”
Prefers married name Adriana Saurini (nee’ Dudasova) did not change her married name back to her birth name to make things easier on her daughter, and for logistical reasons. Plus, “I have no emotional attachment to my maiden name. It is my father’s name who left us when I was just 8 years old,” she explains. Plus, “My maiden name is extremely hard to pronounce as I am an immigrant from Slovakia. My married name is so much simpler and it sounds great with my first name. I am about to remarry. I will add my new husbands name as my middle name. (I don’t have a middle name). He understands and supports my decision.”
Honoring her family Nicole Earle of Forrest Hills, N.Y., resisted changing her name when she married, “but my husband-to-be was very macho and traditional and didn’t even like the idea of hyphenating our names. So I gave in.” Among her reasons for legally changing her name back, includes family pride. “I have my grandfather’s last name. He was an immigrant who came to this country from Jamaica as a young man. He sponsored many of his family members as well as my grandmother’s. He took care of his family and sometimes those who weren’t his family, owned his own business, owned property, had strong values and was a brave man. Pure example of the American dream. I’m the last to have his name and I want to hold on to it.”
A complicated affair Brittany Frizzell’s (her ex-husbands last name) decision to change her name “had a lot of ebb and flow,” she says. “I will always love him and respect my ex-husband. For most of the time during our divorce I thought, “There isn’t a single day in the future that I wouldn’t marry him again.” People make mistakes and grace and compassion are the greatest things we can learn in a relationship – maybe even above unconditional love. As time went on and the finalization of the divorce became more clear and real I settled into the idea of having my own life. It has nothing to do with how I feel about my former spouse. I know I need a clean slate and one that doesn’t remind me of what these last few years felt like. My love for him is not the hinge of the decision to change my name.
“In the end I decided to take my maternal grandparents’ name — Storms. They are the most fun, loving, and supportive people I know. My grandfather is not my biological grandfather and he and my grandmother were never able to have children of their own. I am honored to take their name and start this new life. All while still carrying my experience and my former spouse in my heart.”
The experts also weighed in.
Don’t try to dodge debt Kelsey Mulholland, a family attorney in Morristown, N.J., said that the one reason a woman absolutely should not change her name back to her birth name, is if it is solely for the purpose of avoiding creditors or criminal prosecution. “A court will often make sure that a woman has a good faith reason for changing her name back and that she is not doing it to avoid creditors or criminal charges,” Mulholland says.
Keep your birth name — except when your career suffers Rosemary Frank, MBA, a financial advisor and divorce financial analyst, urges both parties to keep their birth names when marrying, saying: “The only true marriage name of an equal partnership would be a hyphenated version of both spouses birth names. In the event of divorce, wives who did change their names should revert to their birth names, Frank says. “Divorce is a process of making oneself whole again. Recovery of one’s birth name is part of that restoration to their prior individuality.”
An exception, Frank says, is when the wife has significant professional collateral with her married name.
Leverage name change in divorce Twice-married divorce coach Heather Debreceni of Longmont, Colo., says that the name change can be such an emotional issue that it can be used as leverage in the divorce proceedings. “Even if you don’t feel strongly about changing your name, your former spouse might,” Debreceni says. “You may be able to use that knowledge during your negotiations.”
Legal considerations Danielle Tate is founder of both MissNowMrs.com and GetYourNameBack.com — platforms that help women change their names before and after marriage, respectively. Her advice:
1. “Always have your attorney include a name change order restoring your maiden name in your divorce decree. If women do not have a name change order within their divorce decree, they will have to petition the court system for a legal name change order — an expensive and tenuous process.”
2. “If you have not changed your name back to your maiden name post-divorce and are remarrying, be sure to write your current married name
on your marriage license application. If you list your maiden name on the license, you will not be able to use it to change to your new fiance’s last
Keeping the married name might be good for the kids — and keeping you both single April Masini, author of four relationship advice books and the ‘AskApril’ advice column says that keeping your married name can help make the transition easier for young kids post-divorce. “If a woman changes her last name after a divorce, and her kids see that there are now two homes, one parent in each, less to go around, and mom’s got a different name than we do, there’s more upset, more confusion and more transition, as well as an unearned feeling of loss from the name change,” Masini says. “However, if the marriage was so bad that the name change is liberating, in spite of the transition the kids go through as a result, it can be a positive change. Many kids choose to change their own names as a result, upon reaching majority, and while names tell a story about where you came from, they are, at the end of the day, a bunch of letters arranged in a certain way.”
She warns that keeping a married name can keep you stuck in a romantic relationship that has since ended. “If you have fond feelings — or can’t let go of the fact that you’re no longer connected by marriage — keeping your married last name after divorce is a way to hold on,” Masini says. “It’s also a way to thwart a subsequent marriage your ex may enter into by being ‘the other Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so.'”
It’s all about you If you’re not sure what to do, look around at other families before you assume your family — or your names — have to look a certain way, says New York family lawyer Casey Greenfield. “You might be surprised by how many different last names make up the family next door,” she says. “The name you keep, shed, or reclaim is yours. When you are deciding about what to call yourself, a name is not your parents’ or your ex-spouse’s. Do you like the look and sound of it? Do you like the meaning it suggests to you? You’re going to wear this name or rid yourself of it, so decide how it feels to you.”
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