why you should change your name after divorce, and how to do it

Recently a newly single mom messaged me: “Can you please write about a name change after divorce? I don't want to share my name with my ex-husband anymore, 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?”

What happens to your name after divorce?

Nothing happens to your name during divorce unless you take steps to change it. Some women don’t change it because they want to have the same last name as their kids. Others keep the married name because they’ve established careers under it. Going back to your birth name is a personal and valid choice, however. Here’s what you need to know.

Can you change your last name as part of your divorce decree?

Yes! Changing your name as part of your divorce process can be the easiest way to do it. Specify your name change as part of the divorce process. The divorce decree will include an order restoring your former name, which you can immediately start using.

What if you divorced and didn’t request a name change?

If you decide you want to change your name post-divorce, you have several options.

Ask the court if it can modify the divorce order

Depending on where you live, you might be able to get the divorce order amended to include a name change. Check the laws in your state.

And if you can’t get the divorce order modified? You can take steps through your local courts to change your name. A service like LegalZoom can help reclaim your name. LegalZoom's $139 name-change service is quick and easy. Check it out here.

Take these steps to legally change your name yourself

The process varies from state to state. Generally speaking, you need to petition the city or county court for a name change. It’s possible to fill out these documents yourself, hire a lawyer or use a service like LegalZoom.com to do it for you.

Often you’ll be required to attend a court hearing. Some states mandate fingerprinting and criminal checks.

Many states require you to publish a name change notice in a newspaper’s “legal notices” classified section; some also require you to publish the date of your court hearing. Your first step should be to research the laws in your state, or call your local court house.

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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 the 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 have an excellent chance of divorce.

I asked for others' experiences with their surnames following the demise of a 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 the 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 
name.”

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 the 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.”

How long does it take to have your name changed after a divorce?

It’s impossible to say. Getting a hearing at a busy big-city court will likely take longer than at a rural court system. Additional delays could come from fingerprinting/criminal check requirements, especially if there’s a backlog. Legal notice rules vary, too.

Generally speaking, you can expect the process to take at least two weeks. But it could also take months.

How much does it cost to change your name after a divorce?

If it’s part of the divorce decree, then changing your name won’t cost anything extra. But if you’re changing it post-divorce, expect to pay anywhere from $150 to more than $430 for court and legal fees. Among some of the potential costs:

  • Filing court paperwork
  • Publishing a name-change notice in the newspaper
  • Paying for a criminal records check (in states that require fingerprinting)
  • Getting certified copies of the official decree
  • Paying a lawyer

Instead of paying a lawyer or struggling with the forms yourself, you could  go with a site like LegalZoom.com, which charges as little as $139 for name changes.

Can I change my name after divorce for free?

Maybe. In some places you can just go back to using your former name rather than legally change it after divorce. Check to see if your state allows this.

However, you’ll still need to change your name on bank accounts, your driver’s license, and other accounts and documents.

Keep in mind that a legal name change – whether during or after the divorce – is probably the surest way to make sure your name gets accepted. You’ll have the paperwork to prove it.

Can you change the name of your children after a divorce?

In general, courts tend to favor children keeping their current names. However, there are exceptions. Among the factors the court will consider:

  • The child’s age
  • How long the child has used their current last name
  • Any benefits or negative impacts of a potential name change
  • The strength of the child’s bond with the other parent

Note: Even if your son or daughter does end up with your last name, they’ll still have the same relationship with their other parent. A name change after divorce doesn’t change things like visitation or child support.

Note that changing a child's name is a common symptom of parental alienation.

What legal documents need to be updated when you change your name after a divorce?

Any document that bears your old name should be changed to reflect the new one. This includes a driver's license, passport, state ID, social security card, bank accounts, mortgage and car notes.

How you change your name on a passport

If your name change happened less than one year after the passport was issued, you might be able to change it by mail. Along with the form you’ll need to include a certified copy of the name-change document, a color photo and your current passport. It won’t cost you anything.

But if the name change happened more than a year after the passport was issued, you’ll need to apply in person – and you’ll have to pay first-time applicant fees.

Visit travel.state.gov to learn more and download the necessary forms.

How you change your name on a driver’s license

This is a good place to start, since having a photo ID with your new name could make it easier to change your name elsewhere.

Bring a certified copy of the divorce decree or name-change order to the department of motor vehicles, along with any other required documents (which could include an updated Social Security card).

In addition to changing your license, ask about amending your vehicle title and/or vehicle registration records.

How you change your name on a Social Security card

Download an application from ssa.gov. You’ll also need to provide documentation:

  • The divorce decree or court order for your name change
  • A passport, U.S. driver’s license or certain other forms of ID
  • Proof of citizenship

You can mail all this, or take it to a Social Security field office. Note: There’s no charge for this service; the U.S. government advises against using businesses that offer to get you a new card for a fee.

Who needs to receive a name change notification letter after a divorce?

Companies or institutions that have your former name on record need to update their records with your new name. Among them:

Insurance companies

This will be easier if your auto, life and homeowners/renters policies are bundled. Just contact your agent to get the ball rolling. If you have policies at more than one company, you’ll have to make more than one call.

Contact your health insurance provider about your name change, too, because you’ll need a new ID card. If your kid’s name changed, too, update their record.

If you’re a beneficiary on someone’s life insurance, be sure to let the insurance company know about your name change.

Financial institutions

Companies who handle your money need to know your new name. Among others to notify:

  • Banks or credit unions
  • Investment/retirement accounts
  • Mutual funds
  • Credit card and loan issuers

Not all banks are willing to change the name on an account. You might have to close it and open a new one; if so, remember to update the info for direct deposit or autopay associated with the old account.

Health care providers

Your doctor, dentist, therapist, massage practitioner or anyone else who takes care of you needs your new legal name added to the record.

Make sure the new name is also reflected on your kids’ records as well. This will prevent paperwork snafus at the next immunization or sports physical.

Lawyer

If your name was changed as part of the divorce, then your lawyer already has it. But if you changed it yourself, be sure your divorce attorney has the new name on file.

If you have a will (and you should), power of attorney, trust, living will or other legal documents, let the lawyer know about your name change. Get copies of the revised documents to keep at home, to prevent any confusion later on.

How to change your name after divorce online

Changing your name after divorce can help you heal from a difficult marriage and/or a contentious split. Even if it was all pretty amicable, returning to your former name can represent a second chance for the old you – and an awesome step in starting your new life as a single mom! Check out LegalZoom's $139 name-change service. Easy, fast and affordable. LegalZoom has an A+ Better Business Bureau rating.


 

About Emma Johnson

Wealthysinglemommy.com founder  Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist and author. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Emma's Top Single Mom Resources.

7 Comments

  1. Erin on December 4, 2017 at 6:27 pm

    I stood there before the judge with tears streaming down my face as he asked me if I wanted to assume my maiden name. Even through all the pain I was most certain that I was keeping his last name. We share four daughters and we had shared the same last name for over 11 years. All I could think of was the girls. So, 8 1/2 status post divorce, I would like to change back to my maiden name. Our youngest girls are 13. It’s very expensive to take back my birth name, just isn’t fair.

  2. Sofia on December 13, 2016 at 10:06 am

    I’m portuguese and have been living in USA for the last 20 years.
    I got married with an american, we had two boys and got divorced after seven years.
    I kept his name (Steinman) not only because I like it, but it has always been difficult for people to pronounce my birth surname.
    My kids, my job and my life are here in California, so I don’t see any kind of problem in keeping my hubby’s :)

  3. Kylie Travers on October 12, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    I kept it for a while after my divorce because I was an author, speaker etc. and was informed it would be better for my business to keep it.

    I switched to my birth name almost 2 years later and my career flourished. I hated my married name and felt smothered by it. I wish I had changed it when I first divorced. Some of my biggest awards were in that ‘post divorce but still using married name’ stage.

    My kids request a hyphenated surname (it’s not legally changed, it’s simply what they’ve reverted to asking people to call them), my partner has a different surname to us and I’m unlikely to change my name if we marry.

    • Emma on October 13, 2016 at 10:50 am

      All makes sense – especially the part about your career flourishing after you changed to a name you liked. Brava!

  4. Nessa on August 22, 2016 at 11:00 pm

    I wanted to hyphenate my name when I married, but ended up taking my ex’s last name because he said he wouldn’t marry me otherwise. (Red flag?) When we divorced, I decided to hyphenate. I considered changing back to my birth name, but my daughter said if I did that, then she got to change her name too, which was not a fight I wanted to have. So now, I have my birth name and my kids’ name, and I couldn’t be happier. If I ever got married again, I’d probably keep birth and kids’ as middle names and add on the new hubby’s at the end without hyphenation. One can never have too many names in my opinion. ;)

  5. kth on November 20, 2015 at 9:17 am

    Nothing was more liberating than reclaiming my birth name after the divorce, and my kids didn’t take it personally. It set the right tone for a new chapter in my life.

    • Emma on November 20, 2015 at 9:18 am

      love this, way to go!

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