Should You Change Your Name When You Divorce?

Nearly every woman going through divorce, at least nearly every woman who has changed her name at marriage to that of her husband, considers when she divorces whether she should change her name. It’s not unusual for her to look at me as we prepare the papers and ask me what I think. The main thought I have about it is that I’m a lousy person to help decide.

Whether you restore your maiden name when you divorce or return to a former married name is the most intimate of decisions, one that’s fraught with notions of family loyalty, exposure to debts, and identity. No, I won’t tell you what to do, but I can offer some observations about names.

First, husbands often have strong ideas about what name the wife they’re divorcing should use. Although she may wish to listen to their suggestions and concerns, she’s not bound by them. Whether a woman keeps her married name after divorce or changes to some other name is entirely her decision. Her STBX doesn’t have a say in it, any more than she could decide what name he should use.

Second, changing your name to that of your children may be handy, but it’s no longer essential. Single-parent families are so common now that teachers and others who work with children don’t even notice it any more when the parents and the children have different names. If they do, it’s their issue, not yours.

Third, it’s a shame that we ask you to make this decision in the midst of dealing with all the other issues you need to resolve in divorce. While you’re negotiating the terms of your separation and divorce, you’re in a time of unprecedented crisis, and I’m a big believer in the idea that people in crisis should minimize the number of long-term decisions they have to make. Fortunately, in many states (including my home state of Alabama), you can do exactly that. The cost (about $25) and hassle of changing your name in Alabama are low. And it’s easy to do it without using a lawyer. Just go to your local probate court and tell them you want to change your name. They’ll give you the form to fill out and sign, and the change will be effective within about three weeks.

So I guess I’ll finish by suggesting that if you’re in doubt about what name to use, and if your state is one of those that doesn’t make you hire a lawyer to change your name, chill. Just leave your name alone for now; you can always change it a year later after you’ve had a chance to begin rediscovering who you are separate from your husband.