Planning a wedding means you’ll have a lot to consider and decide on. And one of those big decisions is deciding whether to keep your maiden name, take on your partner’s name, or combine them.
Marriage is all about becoming one with your partner and creating a beautiful life together. And for many years, one traditional symbol of this union has been the woman taking on her husband’s last name. But our name’s mean a lot to us—they’re part of who we are and a part of our family. So today, traditions are shifting and more women are choosing to keep their maiden name or hyphenate the two names together.
But where did this tradition start, what does it really symbolize, and what choice should you make? Let’s take a look at what you need to know as the big day approaches.
Name Changes Are an Old Tradition
Last names in ancient times were not what we know today. In fact, for centuries people were simply known by their first, or “Christian,” names. But as the population expanded, people decided there needed to be a better way to differentiate everyone from one another, which is how last names came about.
Many of these last names came from a profession (Smith, Farmer), family lineage (Thompson, Richardson), or the location of the family home (River, Marsh).
Eventually, lawmakers started to scrutinize marriage and its implications on individuals and families. In these times, brides had no legal rights or individual identities of their own. From birth, women were legally under the coverage of their fathers. At marriage, the bride’s legal rights and identity became her husband’s—women couldn’t own property, enter contracts, do business, or engage in litigation on their own. For this reason, women were required by law to take their husbands’ last names.
Keeping a Maiden Name After Marriage Was a “Bad Sign”
The practice continued for centuries. And even when it was no longer a legal requirement, the name a woman chose after marriage had some serious societal implications.
Around the time of World War I, women began to question the practice of taking their husbands’ names. But these changes weren’t favored by everyone. In fact, women who didn’t change their names were often ostracized by their community and even accused of being unpatriotic.
Many believed that the refusal to take a husband’s name meant a woman was unfaithful or loose. They believed it meant a woman was promiscuous before marriage and might continue to be after. For these reasons, many women still continued to take their husbands’ names, even if it wasn’t what they truly preferred.
The 1960s Brought Changes That Continue Today
The rise in feminism and the sexual revolution during the 1960s brought about changes in marriage, including the decision to keep your own name or change it to your husband’s. During this period, western culture saw a big push for sexual freedom, and many women were dedicated to breaking antiquated gender norms.
Those shifts saw a number of women proudly choosing to keep their maiden name after marriage. But things didn’t stay that way for long. Trends ebb and flow and over time, more and more women began to take their husband’s last name when they got married—or at least hyphenate them together.
By 2014, nearly half of Americans thought taking a new partner’s surname was “silly,” according to research by pollsters Gallup. In fact, only 6% thought it was important for women who get married to change their surname completely.
Today, it is acceptable for a woman to take her husband’s name, use a combined name, hyphenate both names together, or simply keep her maiden name. Since there are no laws that require you to change your name when you marry, it’s a personal decision for the couple. It’s also not uncommon for both partners to hyphenate their last names so both can share the same combined last name.
Today, women who take their husbands’ names do so because they want to. Whether they’re influenced by tradition, believe it’s a sign of devotion and a symbol of your union, or because of religious customs, it has no effect on a marriage license.
Navigating the Conversation
Changing your last name is a big decision, one that deserves time and conversations on both sides. There are plenty of valid reasons as to why someone may or may not want to make that change and both partners need to listen and be considerate of those feelings.
Factors that might influence the decision include…
- Professional Reputations: Some professionals, such as doctors and professors, are well known in their field by their last names, and that can make name changes hard to navigate. In these cases, that partner may choose to keep their last name or change it legally while keeping it socially.
- Family Traditions: Traditions are important and can play a big role in major life decisions. If one partner’s family feels strongly about the name change, that partner may feel strongly about it too.
- Starting a Family: If you’re thinking about having children, you might want everyone to have the same family name. This might mean one partner changing their name to match the other’s or both partners adopting a hyphenated last name. If you choose to keep your separate names, be sure to have a conversation about what your children’s names will be, too.
Legally Changing Your Last Name
Most of us have no idea just how many things have our names on them until we have to change them. Adopting your new husband’s surname isn’t as simple as slapping “Jones” after every mention of “Smith.” Changing legal documents requires time and planning before marriage so it doesn’t become a burden during wedding planning season!
You can legally change your last name by using a court order called a “declaration of intent.” This declaration can be filed with any county clerk’s office after being signed by both spouses and notarized. Once filed, this document is good for six months and will allow the two of you time for all state agencies that require legal proof of marriage before issuing any documents or benefits under their jurisdiction.
Name Changes Are a Personal Decision
Remember, when you get married, the decision of what to do with your name is up to you and your partner. You can choose to change it, keep it, or hyphenate it. While you might consider family and cultural decisions, ultimately, it’s all about choosing an option that works for both you and your partner—and no one else can make that decision for you!
How you present yourselves as a couple is one of the biggest decisions you’ll need to make before you get married—after all, it’s a decision that will last the rest of your lives. While conversations like name changes and prenuptial agreements aren’t the most romantic conversations to have, they’re important to the longevity of your marriage. Remember to be open, honest, and respectful through the process, and you’ll get to a decision that makes you both happy!
Julia Rodgers is HelloPrenup’s CEO and Co-Founder. She is a Massachusetts family law attorney and true believer in the value of prenuptial agreements. HelloPrenup was created with the goal of automating the prenup process, making it more collaborative, time efficient and cost effective. Julia believes that a healthy marriage is one in which couples can openly communicate about finances and life goals. You can read more about us here Questions? Reach out to Julia directly at [email protected].