Wedding Norms Challenged as Women Question Changing Names

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June is the unofficial height of the wedding season so I couldn’t pass up a chance to weigh in on an issue many women encounter when tying the knot — the name change.

As young girls, we have all scribbled on our notebooks “Mrs. ‘insert fifth grade crush’s name here.’” But back in fifth grade, we probably weren’t thinking about the legal and social implications of a woman changing her surname to reflect that of her new husband. Now, however, women have a choice to make. Do I hyphenate? Do I change my last name when I’m known in my profession by my maiden name? If I do change my name, do I lose a part of my identity? Or if I don’t, do I correct people when they call me “Mrs. _____”? As a woman who did not change her last name, I know these are questions I had to answer for myself.

Traditional social mores and values dictate that women should adopt their husbands’ surnames upon marriage. Women were once considered property and changing thelast name reflected this. Although not true anymore in the legal or social sense, name changing symbolically still reflects unity and commitment. Lucy Stone, a prevalent antislavery activist and woman suffragist, became the first woman on American record to not change her surname upon marriage in 1855. Now, Lucy Stone’s name continues to be synonymous with the movement against name change. In the mid-1920s the Lucy Stone League was formed, a committee dedicated to name change equality for men and women. The organization likens name change to certain prisons where prisoners are given a number instead of being called by their names.

Although many of us may not take this idea as far as the Lucy Stone League, questions of identity may be of importance when deciding whether or not to change your name after marriage. In a recent study by University of Florida Professor Diana Boxer, one woman expressed dismay at losing part of her ethnic heritage by changing her last name. The results of the study indicate that many women are concerned about the confusion their kids may encounter when mom has a different last name, and also that women who are in professional fields are less likely to change their names.

The results are not surprising. As women began to assume a more professional role in the workplace in the 70s and 80s, the number of women who kept their maiden names also increased. If I had to guess the reason behind the upswing, I’d say that women began marrying later in life, allowing more time for career and finding they have “made a name for themselves” in their respective professions. But, like bell-bottoms and aviator sunglasses, most trends come back around and women are once again beginning to adopt their husband’s names. Statistics now show that roughly 90 percent of all married women take on their partner’s surname — even though women are marrying even later in life.

So what does the law say? When signing a marriage certificate, a woman has a choice to write in what her new last name will be. However, only six states — Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New York, and Delaware — have the same option for men to change their name. In a recent court case in California, a man wished to take his wife’s name, but court fees were much higher and requirements more burdensome than a woman who takes on her husband’s name. A man in California must advertise his plan to change his name change for four weeks in a newspaper, as well as get approval from a judge! Similarly, in Virginia, a woman can change or hyphenate her name after marriage without any court proceedings, but a man should petition for the name change in court which means higher costs and more time.

Since society (and apparently also our courts) believes it’s the norm for women to change their name, we encounter much less hassle. So after indicating your choice to change your last name, the most important move to make is to notify the Social Security Administration by filling out a SS-5 form online or through the mail. The Social Security Administration will then notify the IRS of the change. Next, head down to the local department of motor vehicles and get a new driver’s license (and even a better picture this time).

Additionally, let your employer know so paychecks can be adjusted to reflect the change. Lastly, notify everyone — really, everyone: bank, brokerage and other investment accounts, credit cards, medical offices, insurance companies, state and local tax boards, passport office, voter registration, utilities, your mother. But don’t panic because all of this can be done after you get back from your honeymoon or by the handy use of a “name change kit” sold on most wedding websites. These kits come with everything you need to make the change including forms and a check-list to make sure you notify everyone important.

And regardless of the name choice you make … just remember a good marriage is more than just a name.

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Traditional reasons for name change as property
Steps to change your name
Women making “a name for themselves”
California requires man to petition in court for name change
Lucy Stone League
Diana Boxer interview on study of name change
Social Security name change questions and answers
Virginia State bar recommends men apply for name change in court
Example of a name change kit
Statistics now show that roughly 90 percent of all married women take on their partner’s surname
Women getting married later in life and therefore giving the marriage a better chance of survival

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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. Lis is also the author of The 51% Minority — How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. (Watch the Video) To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.