Whats in a name? Checklist to change your name after divorce


SAN DIEGO – August 28, 2012 – After getting divorced, many women face a reminder every day of their ex-husband: their last name.

The vast majority of American women take their husband’s surname when they get married. According to a 35-year-study in the journal Social Behavior and Personality, women keeping their maiden names after marriage peaked in the 1990s, when about 23% of women did so, then eased gradually to about 18% by 2000. It varies greatly from region to region (up to 20% in the Northeast, versus 4% in the Midwest), and depends a great deal on education and professional status. It’s much less about making a political, religious or feminist statement.

But with 800,000 divorces in the U.S. annually, any way you measure it there are hundreds of thousands of women who face this issue.

The legal process itself is not all that involved. If you intend to change your name, your final divorce decree can include a clause about officially dropping your husband’s name and returning to your maiden name, or any previous name you used (another married name, for instance). This is by far the easiest and should not cost you anything extra.

However, if you want to change to an entirely new name, you will need to file a petition for a change of name as it’s called in California, or a similar document in your state.  Check your state’s rules regarding name changes.

There is no way around the numerous documents and accounts you’ll need to change. By far the most important to take care of first are your state driver’s license and your Social Security account with the Social Security Administration. Once you have this accomplished, it should be fairly easy to have the rest of your records changed. If you have a passport, it should also be updated. The plus of updating your passport is that it can also list your previous married name under an AKA list, which connects the dots when you need to change other accounts such as insurance policies, bank accounts, and so on.

Ask various institutions you deal with what type of documentation they require to make your name change official in their records. Chances are good they will all be a little different. As more organizations take security precautions, you will increasingly need to provide special forms, a copy of a court order listing your new name, and perhaps even a personal meeting. Don’t get annoyed; this is for your personal protection. Government regulations to fight against fraud, like identity theft, are making it more difficult to change your name without a court order.

Among the people and institutions to notify of your name change:

  • Department of Motor Vehicles
  • Social Security Administration
  • Passport office
  • Friends and family
  • Employers
  • Schools
  • Post office
  • Department of Records or Vital Statistics (issuers of birth certificates)
  • Banks and other financial institutions
  • Creditors and debtors
  • Telephone and utility companies
  • State tax collection authority
  • Insurance agencies
  • Registrar of Voters
  • Veterans Administration
  • Public Assistance (welfare) office

Be sure to revise your will, trust, power of attorney, or any other similar documents with new versions using your new name. The original documents are still enforceable, but changing the document now will avoid confusion later. It’s also a good idea to revise any contracts such as business agreements with your new name.

You cannot change your name to defraud your creditors, for any illegal purpose, to hide from the law or police, to benefit economically from someone else’s name (so sorry, but you won’t be allowed to change your name to Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber) or to invade someone’s privacy.

FYI, if you want to legally change your name AND your gender, in California there is a separate legal process. If you just want to change your name for now and intend to change your gender later, you can go through the standard name change proceedings, and then change gender in a separate special legal proceeding. Don’t think I haven’t dealt with this, all in a day’s work for a family law attorney in the 21st century.

No one can force you to change your name against your will. This does come up, most often when the ex-husband is getting remarried and he, or more likely the new wife, doesn’t want there to be two Mrs. Studmuffins. If you choose to do so, that’s fine, but it is entirely your own decision.

Some divorcing mothers hesitate about reverting back to their birth name because they feel it will be confusing for their children to have a different last name, especially if they are the custodial parent or dad isn’t much in the picture. What happens if you remarry? If you have another man’s name, will it bother your second husband? You may end up changing your name and having a different surname from your children anyway.

The trust is, most kids don’t really care about last names. Many of their friends’ moms kept their maiden names. Or they have friends who have already been down the divorce and remarriage road. Children with different names than their parents are not unusual.

The other possibility is to take an entirely new last name for yourself, not tied to your single or married history. It can be a family name several generations back, a change in spelling, a shortened version, or a name that simply sounds or looks good and has personal meaning to you. You have the legal right to do this at any time, for no reason (other than the few legal prohibitions cited earlier). Starting with a clean slate including a new name can signify a healthy new start in life and the strong new person you have become.

Consulting with a family law attorney about name changes is a wise investment, and should not be complicated or costly, but can save you a lot of time and frustration later.

Myra Chack Fleischer serves as Lead Counsel for Fleischer & Ravreby in Carlsbad, California with a focus on divorce, property, custody and support, settlement agreements, mediation, asset division and family law appeals. Read more Legally Speaking in Communities Digital News. Follow Myra on Twitter: @LawyerMyra.

Copyright © 2014 by Fleischer & Ravreby, Attorneys at Law


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