Name Changes in Marriage and Divorce

Mar 29, 2022

On today’s podcast, we’re going to talk about name changes. Why do we change our names when we get married? What’s the history behind changing names in marriage, and what happens when you get divorced? How do you change your name then? Then finally, we’ll talk about moving forward — what to do with the name change.


Intro: Welcome to the Lady Lawyer League podcast. They are a league of lady lawyers in an all-female law firm in Omaha, Nebraska, called Hightower Reff Law. On this podcast, you’ll hear stories of what it’s like to be a lady lawyer and an entrepreneur. Now it’s time to talk about the law, share real-life stories about representing clients and discuss the current events of the week. It’s the Lady Lawyer League podcast with Susan Reff and Tracy Hightower-Henne.

Susan: Joining us on the Lady Lawyer League podcast today is Tara Wrighton, an associate attorney at Hightower Reff Law. Hi, Tara.

Tara: Hello.

Susan: What’s new with you?

Tara: Oh, you know, I was I was just talking with you a little bit ago about my little baby, my new baby. And he’s got, he’s a little sick right now. But I had multiple wardrobe changes today, so I’ll just leave it at that. Yeah, but I’m good.

Susan: You always know a new mom when you see, like, little white spots on shoulders of clothes. I don’t know if other people even notice that.

Tara: Yeah, I know. I need to get in the habit of doing a full body check before I walk out the door, because I haven’t gotten to that, especially if I’m going to court. Yeah, normally, like walking around here, if it’s like, oh, I got a little spittle. I’m not, I’m not so concerned. Like, I think you all understand.

Susan: But yeah.

Tara: You know.

Susan: And when you wear black a lot, like a lot of lawyers do, there’s. It’s a lot more visible.

Tara: Yeah, it is. I know. I know. I need to get more like puke color clothes.

Susan: So you’re going to walk into a store and they’re going to say, how can I help you today? And you’re going to be like, what? Clothes, mask, baby, puke.

Tara: Give me something in a in a vomit color.

Susan: Yeah. Beige, dark, green.

Tara: White rose.

Susan: Nice. Okay, so I have a white shirt on today.

Tara: It looks nice.

Susan: Thank you. But I don’t have a baby, so I guess I’m in the clear. Yeah. So we’re going to talk about name changes today and kind of specifically about name changes with marriage and divorce. And, you know, when you get married, there’s been this history of a woman taking a man’s last name. Yeah. And the history behind it is kind of, it’s kind of yucky. Now, what today is to think about it. Yeah.

Tara: Do you know do you know when that started? Like, when was it? Just since the beginning of time that women took men’s names. I mean, really, I’m curious.

Susan: I don’t know.

Tara: Or was there some just change in history where men were like, you will take my name and you are my property?

Susan: I feel like with my limited knowledge of sociology, probably in maybe religious history, it’s always been that the woman becomes part of the man’s property, right?

Tara: It’s the whole Adam and Eve thing. Like, you know, Eve was from made from Adam or whatever.

Susan: And did you grow up with that fable told to you?

Tara: I grew up learning that.

Susan: Did you also? So I also grew up actually thinking, and this is not my parent’s fault at all, because if they would have known I thought this, they would have corrected me, that women had less ribs than men.

Tara: Because of that.

Susan: Yeah. Because they took the rib of Adam to, right. Yeah. Right. And so like men had 13 ribs and women had 12 or something like that.

Tara: Oh no, I didn’t grow up with that.

Susan: But yikes that women were like only made because man was made first and stuff like that.

Tara: Yeah. Well, you know, some people still think that along those lines, but I think now we’re moving towards not so much.

Susan: Yeah. They, and from my understanding, which again, very limited, even marriages where they’re doing like dowries, there’s gifts and money going both ways, is what I’m hearing. It’s not just the woman’s family providing a dowry to the man’s family for the marriage.

Tara: Yeah. So, yeah, it’s interesting.

Susan: I don’t think that’s very common in the United States. But dowries.

Tara: Yeah.

Susan: Or at all in the United States. Common at all. But it does still happen. So it was like a woman was leaving her family and becoming part of the man’s family. And I think, you know, if you think of land holders, land owners and like you work the land, the woman would then move from her family’s land to the husband’s land and, some sort of supportive person in that whole farming, ag kind of culture.

Tara: Yeah, well, and I also think it’s a little bit like there’s maybe like a darker part of it too, where like the woman is the man’s property rather than I think there’s a sweet concept to like, you know, two people are becoming one and they’re sharing a last name now and they’re going to make a family and they all have this last name. Like, I think there’s a sweet side to it now. And that’s how I think about it, because I, I did take my husband’s last name and I have two kids and they have, you know, we all have the same last name and there’s something to be said for that. But I think it didn’t start off that way. And, you know.

Susan: Well, a man could kill his wife legally. Yeah. Because she was his property, where a man couldn’t just go kill a woman, but he could kill his wife. You know.

Tara: I’m going to marry her. Then I can kill her.

Susan: Oh, yeah. I wonder if that ever happened.

Tara: It sounds like a Netflix special.

Susan: Yeah. So when you took, when you were, you know, getting in the process of getting married, was it, were you always of the mindset, like, I’m going to take Tom’s last name?

Tara: You know, I think so. I think I always just had in my mind that, you know, I want my kids to have the same last name as me. And I, you know, I don’t know. I thought of it as the sweet thing. And also for me, I just started. I was a brand new baby lawyer. And so I didn’t really have like a name in the community yet that was recognizable to anybody. Now, if I was getting married, I might rethink that a little bit, you know, changing my name like, you know, or if I got divorced or something, I don’t know if I would change my name just because people know, you might know me in the community and wonder where I went if they searched for me and I wasn’t around anymore, you know, or had a different last name. Is it the same person? You know what I mean?

Susan: Side note: Divorce lawyers are never afraid to say “if I get divorced.” Like I think people, regular people who are married, who are not divorce lawyers, would never walk around and go, “Well, if I get divorced…” Or like divorce lawyers are not afraid to say that.

Tara: I mean, I don’t plan on getting divorced. I don’t have any aspirations to. But I.

Susan: Planned it if you needed to just …

Tara: I know. I know. A good divorce firm.

Susan: Oftentimes that conversation happens at my house.

Tara: Really?

Susan: Yeah. We could do a whole episode about the conversations my husband and I have had if we get divorced.

Tara: Well, at least you know you’ve got a good plan.

Susan: Yeah, for sure. Plan?

Tara: Yeah, it’s important.

Susan: So I did not take my husband’s last name when we got married, and I never, like, thought I would ever take a man’s last name getting married no matter what. But I was an established attorney. I was, you know, a solo practitioner when I got married, my name was already out there, but that was like a total side thought in my mind. Mine was a little bit more of a kind of a, I don’t want to become part of his family in a formalized sense. I want to maintain my independence and maintain my self and my family. And the thought of kids when we first got married was, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Tara: Uh huh.

Susan: And another really kind of really interesting name scenario is my husband’s last name is Farrell. His brother is married to a Susan and her name is Susan Farrell, right? Yeah, my brother’s name is Mike Reff and my husband’s name is Mike.

Tara: So it’s a lot of confusion.

Susan: It’s very confusing. And a lot of people think like, this is silly though. But like on Facebook, my brother posts a lot and a lot of people think that’s my husband. A lot of people have just assumed that my husband’s last name is Reff because he’s not out there and doing anything exciting and in the community.

Tara: Like, so they just assume he’s.

Susan: Part of my family. Yeah. So it’s, it’s interesting the assumptions. I think most people do approach though, that married couples have the husband’s last name. I think that’s like the assumption.

Tara: But it doesn’t have to be that way. No husband could take a wife’s last name. It sounds like that. I mean, I don’t know anyone personally, but I think we were talking about that. And you do?

Susan: Yeah. So I do know some couples where the husband has taken the wife’s last name at marriage. And specifically, I had gone to college with someone and he approached me knowing I was an attorney. We hadn’t talked in a couple of years. He said, “Hey, I just got married and I want to take my wife’s last name. And I took my marriage certificate to Social Security. And they would not change my Social Security card. And they told me that I had to do a formal name change because I was a man.” And he said he followed the same procedures that a woman would follow, and he said he actually wanted to file a discrimination lawsuit. Yeah. And this was before same sex marriage was legal. And I think when same sex marriage became legal, a lot of, ah, like legal documents became more gender neutral.

Tara: Right.

Susan: So I wonder if today that were to happen, if it would be maybe a different situation? I don’t know. But I’m guessing the form they have said only applied for women. Sure. I mean, that’s still unfortunately.

Tara: We have problems with that now, with other things.

Susan: Yeah.

Tara: You know.

Susan: So I. If a person were to want to take either the the man’s name, the man wanting to take the woman’s name, in that situation, he would have had to file a formalized name change case, which you don’t have to do if you’re married and you’re taking your husband’s name. Right, you just take your marriage license to Social Security. They change your card. Then you take that to the DMV and they change your driver’s license, and then, voila, you are, you know, new last name. Right. Whereas at the time, he would have had to then open up a new court case, do a publication for a name change to show. Like, my name is this, but I want to change it to this. And I’m telling the world. And then have to go to a court hearing and tell the judge why you want to change your name. And then the judge issued a court order that you would then take to Social Security and the DMV.

Tara: Right. It is a process that I don’t think people quite understand because, and that’s why we tell people, like if you’re, when you’re getting divorced, if you want to change your name, do it now, because it’s so much easier to just put in a divorce decree. You’re changing your name back to your maiden name whereas afterwards, if you then change your mind and decide, Oh, now I do want to take a different name, it’s a huge process like you just explained. It’s notice and court hearings and things, whereas it could just be. Yeah, whereas it could just be a signing of the pen with your divorce. So it’s so much easier.

Susan: So in a divorce, a woman can have her maiden name restored to her. I have had many clients say, Oh, well, how about if I just change my name to like, I don’t know, some random name they write? Johnson, I don’t know. I like that. I prefer that last name. You’re not allowed to do that. You’re only allowed to restore your maiden name. And where it gets a little hairy is women who’ve been married multiple times. Yeah. So they go from like their maiden name is like Jones, and then they go to Anderson, and then they get divorced from Anderson and they stay Anderson. And then they get married to Smith and they change to Smith. And then from Smith, they’re like, Well, I would really like to go back to Anderson because I still have little kids or whatever, nope. You can only go back to that first maiden. You only have one maiden name. Right. And maiden is such a …

Tara: Yeah, it’s. Yeah. You don’t ever think about that. Maiden is such an antiquated …

Susan: Yes, there’s, it’s very juvenile sounding too. Right. Yeah. Maiden is, conjures up images of like younger women. Who are not adults.

Tara: That just reminds me of like, you know, maid of honor. You never think about that, too. But like, when my sister got married, I was completely single and not married. And I, they were announcing the wedding party or whatever, and they’re like, and here comes the matron of honor. And I was like, “Are you kidding me? Like, I felt so …”

Susan: They called you matron?

Tara: Yeah, they said the matron of honor. And I was like, I don’t know if they just, because I was older than my sister, like they assumed that I was married or something, but it was like super offensive. I was like, I am not a matron. Like, first of all, I’m like 26 years old, like F-you, dude.

Susan: I don’t even. Yeah, matron. Yeah, yeah. Is that just a married one?

Tara: I think. I think instead of calling. Yeah. Like I think instead of calling it a maid of honor, if you’re married, they say matron of honor. It’s all so old fashioned and gross.

Susan: Yeah. Yeah. Here’s the British definition. A married woman, especially a dignified and sober, middle-aged one. Sober. There’s no way you were sober at your sister’s wedding.

Tara: I was definitely not. Yeah.

Susan: I’ve never been called a matron.

Tara: Of honor or it was like anything of, just such a big slap in the face.

Susan: You’re like, oh.

Tara: And I’m also depressed. Yeah. Thank you. Thanks.

Susan: So in a divorce, you know, you can have the your maiden name restored as a woman, but there’s some steps and it has to be done correctly, otherwise, like all court things. Otherwise you don’t get to do it. Yeah. So you have to in, in the beginning of the case, you have to say you want to do it. And a lot of people aren’t really in the mindset to make a decision like that.

Tara: And they’re on the fence and they’ll ask you like, Should I or shouldn’t I? It’s like, well, it’s really a personal decision, but if you, you know, if you’re even slightly thinking about it, you know, tell me now, because now is the time to to plead it.

Susan: Yeah. If you don’t ask for it in the beginning, you’re never going to get it in the end. Right. So, and I was, I had two cases very recently where I was representing women and we had that conversation at the beginning of the case, and they were both for different reasons, like, no, I don’t, I don’t want to. Everything’s fine the way it is. I’ll just keep my name. And then after the case finalized, both of them came back to me and they were like, Okay, I would really like to change my name now. And I say, Well, we can’t do it in the divorce. That was your free one shot. Now we have to do it in the legal know, like a different kind of case. So I’ve heard some people say, you know, it’s a free name change.

Tara: Yeah, it is.

Susan: And even though the court’s order at the end of the case might say, the woman is allowed to change her name back to her maiden name, doesn’t mean she has to write.

Tara: I think what and something that we like also comes up that we haven’t talked about is parents wanting to change their kids name. Yes. Which is if you think and a changing adult name has more steps, a kid is even more and it’s more difficult. And parents don’t realize that, especially if maybe a dad is in or another parent isn’t in the picture, they think, oh, it’s just going to be easy. They can take my last name. It’s fine. No, no. You have to notify the other parent. They have to usually get permission. If they say no, then it’s likely not going to happen. You know, I’ve seen also sometimes the courts will hyphenate. Yeah, but it’s you’re probably not going to get the name changed completely how you want it if they fight it, right.

Susan: The only way you can change a child’s name is in a formalized name change case. You cannot do it in a custody case. You can’t do it in a divorce. You cannot do it in a paternity case. And the reason is because the law says when you are changing someone’s name, there needs to be legal notice to creditors so that no one’s trying to run and hide, like, oh, I have a warrant for my arrest. I’ll just change my name. I owe First National Bank $2 million. I’ll just change my name. They’ll never find me. Right. You know, like Tinder Swindler. Did that guy change his name?

Tara: I think legally. Well, I don’t know, but legally, no, just. He had, like, a lot of aliases.

Susan: Let’s do a podcast on that show. Yes. Oh, he did.

Tara: Oh, he did change it legally.

Susan: Oh, he’s gross.

Susan: I haven’t even seen the show and I know that.

Tara: Oh, yeah, you need to see it.

Susan: I do. I do. Another thing that we haven’t talked about is how we’ve talked about how it affects men, but we haven’t talked about like a same sex couple getting married and or getting divorced, you know? I mean. Everyone deserves to have the same rights and abilities and, you know. Equal due process under law. So when a same sex couple gets married, you know. We don’t know the facts here, but because we haven’t heard of this. But I’m wondering if it’s two men, if either one of them could change their name, like through the marriage license process? You know, I don’t know.

Tara: Yeah, I you know, I know a gay married couple and it’s two men and they both hyphenate their name now. Yeah. And but I do, I don’t know if that’s legally like if they put it on an official document or if that’s just how they put themselves out. I don’t, I guess I don’t know the answer to that. I should ask.

Susan: Yeah, find out. And that also brings up the whole hyphenated thing. Yeah. You know, a lot of women kind of in the eighties, maybe early nineties were doing the hyphenated thing.

Tara: It wouldn’t. Right. And Gabrielson-Wrighton is not something that I want to sign on any document. That is a lot of letters.

Susan: Too much. How many letters is it?

Tara: I don’t know.

Susan: These two?

Tara: Yeah.

Susan: You know, those forms you fill out where there’s a box for every letter?

Tara: Yes. Dear God, I wouldn’t do that to my child either, you know, because sometimes people want to say, like, you know, the parents keep their last name and then they hyphenate the child’s last name, which is fine if it’s like Smith-Jones. Yeah. Gabrielson-Wrighton is not something I would do to my children. It’s a lot of …

Susan: Letters for them to learn in the alphabet.

Tara: Letters? Yeah.

Susan: My son, his first name is nine letters. And that was a struggle to get his first name even spelling correctly. So, yeah. Gabriel’s gay.

Tara: Gabrielson.

Susan: Gabriel.

Tara: Wrighton?

Susan: Yes.

Tara: A lot. Nope. Too much, too many. Not letters. Nobody has time for that.

Susan: So part of why I decided not to hyphen was my last name is Reff and my husband’s last name is Ferrell. It’s a lot of the same letters, so.

Tara: Ferrell, yeah. It doesn’t roll off the tongue.

Susan: Ferrell-Reff sounds better, but that’s not really the tradition that you would do it. You would do the.

Tara: You mean you’re maiden.

Susan: My maiden name. It’s interesting because sometimes I’ll go places and I’m filling out forms and it’s usually well, it only happens when I’m face to face with someone and they’re like, okay, name, middle name, date of birth, social, maiden name. And I give my last name because it is my maiden name. And then they’re like current name or married name, and I’m like, Reff, and they’re like, What?

Tara: But really still.

Susan: Yeah. And they’re like, but you checked the married box, like I’m, and men, women, whatever, they all are like … What I’m like it’s usually when it’s like something to do with credit. I think where they’re asking for, yeah, because they need to search you way back to adulthood. So what’s your other names? I’m like only one. Yeah.

Tara: I feel like nowadays, if anyone tells me that they kept their God-given name, their first name.

Susan: The name for me.

Tara: Now, I just hate saying maiden because it’s just, it sounds icky now. But anyways, if they, I feel like society is a lot more accepting of that now. I mean, we …

Susan: Have you, would say you?

Tara: Have gay, we have gay marriage, for Pete’s sake. Like, you know, I think I feel like we’re getting better slowly, you know, whereas like in the fifties, if you would have said, you know, I kept my maiden name, oh, my gosh, you’d have been the talk of the town. Yeah.

Susan: Ooh, she must not really love her husband. She’s, they’re, they’re going to get divorced. Yeah, that’s going to lead to nothing. She’s going to cheat. You know something? Yeah. Yeah, it says it would say something about your morals if you didn’t take time.

Tara: Right? Whereas now I think if someone tells me that, I’m just like, okay, great, who cares?

Susan: So options going forward about name changes are for women. They can change their name when they get married. They can change their name when they get divorced.

Tara: Or men can change their name when they get married.

Susan: Yes, they can. We’re really just not sure of the current state of the law on that, if they can, with their marriage license, do that or not.

Tara: Right.

Susan: But they could do a name change case and then anyone can plead to the court that they want to change their name and they can change their first name to, in that kind of a case, middle name, but not, you can only change in the divorce to your prior name.

Tara: It can’t be Princess Consuela Banana Hammock, like Phoebe.

Susan: Did Phoebe on friends do the banana hammock part?

Tara: She just said it sounded funny. And then at the end, Mike was like, “Oh, do you even know what a banana hammock is?” And then she found out and she’s like, Okay.

Susan: Yeah, that’s a bad …

Tara: Actress.

Susan: Phoebe was my favorite.

Tara: I know.

Susan: Was she your …

Tara: Favorite? Yes. Yeah, that episode is really funny. But anyway, you can’t do that in a in a divorce. You can only go back to your maiden name.

Susan: So if this isn’t clear enough, you know, call us and we will help you move forward with your divorce and name. Change your name. Change after divorce. It’s maybe something to even, talk about before you get married?

Tara: Yeah, definitely doesn’t hurt. And really, you can change your name in any circumstance. It just depends on where you’re at in life, on how, on what the steps are really. And certainly if you’re talking about a child name change, it’s a lot more complicated. So get in touch with us and we can help you through any of that for sure.

Susan: That was a good wrap up. Thanks, Tara. Yeah, we’ll see you next time.

Tara: Susan, before we go, I have a couple of name suggestions for you. If you ever decide that you want to change your name.

Susan: Okay, hit me.

Tara: Sue You?

Susan: Yeah, I don’t like Sue, so move on. Next.

Tara: Oh, okay. Well.

Susan: So, Susan, you wait. That doesn’t go.

Tara: As do you. Okay, hold on. So a lot of these are man names, but. Oh, my gosh. What? Dick Strong? No.

Susan: But I was thinking. Can you imagine? Yeah. “Hi, Sarah. Your husband filed for divorce, and his attorney’s name is Dick Strong.”

Tara: I want to. I want to be Tara, Tara Tornado. Because I walk in the courtroom and everyone’s like, here comes Tara, the tornado. And I maybe have some music to go along with it as I walk in. Yes, I know. I saw I was like, no.

Susan: Tara. I think Tara Tornado would be awesome if you like really had messy hair too.

Tara: Done the part. I don’t even have to try.

Susan: Tara Tornado with messy hair. And then you come in, you’re walking like some, like, really heavy bass.

Tara: Yeah, I love it.

Susan: Yeah. You could carry like a speaker on your …

Tara: I think we’re on to something. I’m, you’re kind of convincing me that that needs to happen.

Susan: Tara Tornado. We were trying to think of like if we were going to change her name, what would we change it to? Frankly, I should just change my name to Sarah, because that’s what everyone calls me. Everyone thinks my name is Sarah. They must think I look like a Sarah. Or they’re like, “Oh, it starts with an S.” Sarah is the most common S name. I’m not memorable.

Tara: So I don’t know. Oh, well, yeah.

Susan: I like the name. People always think your name is. There’s always a name.

Tara: Well, it’s, you know, for some reason, like on the phone, like, nobody can understand Tara. So they think it’s Cara or Sarah. Yeah. Nobody can hear it on the phone. So I don’t know. Some of the judges keep calling me Erin and I don’t, they think we look alike. I think Erin Wetzel and I, which I don’t see at all, but like a couple of judges have called me Erin.

Susan: Erin has blonde hair. You have brown hair.

Tara: I don’t think we look alike.

Susan: I think you have green eyes. She has blue eyes. Yeah. Yeah, she’s a little taller than you.

Tara: Yeah, I don’t know.

Susan: She does criminal cases. You don’t?

Tara: Weird, weird, weird.

Susan: We’re all the same. Somebody thought I was Tracy. Like, they didn’t just say my name wrong. They actually thought I was Tracy because they started talking to me about Susan. Oh, it was hilarious.

Tara: Oh, really? You’re like, do tell that Susan.

Susan: Well, at first they, like it was like a casual conversation and they said, “Tracy” and I just kind of let it go because I was like, I don’t want to correct this person. And I, you know, and then they were like, Well, isn’t Susan like doing this thing? And I was like, so then I had to. And then it was like, we’re like 10 minutes into the conversation, and I’m like, “Well, actually, I’m …” so then I pretended I didn’t hear the first name part. It was very awkward.

Tara: Yeah, that’s funny.

Susan: So, Tara, Tornado is going to be bouncing into court with her face, music and messy hair and going to kick ass. And no one will think that she’s Erin anymore.

Tara: And Sue You is going to sue you.

Susan: Okay? Let’s go to court here and get our names changed. Yes. All right. Bye-bye.

Outro: Thank you for listening to the Lady Lawyer League. Be sure to like and subscribe anywhere you get your podcasts. If you would like to learn more about our firm, visit us at We’ll see you next week.

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