Why We Both Changed Our Names When We Married

A few weeks ago, I got married. We met in college, traveled together internationally, moved across the country, got a dog, and then moved back across the country. Then, over three years after getting engaged, debating about marriage in general, and the idea of elopement, we had an actual wedding. Not too big, with around 60 people total (and of course our dog was in attendance), but with a fancy white dress and a wedding cake.

Oh, and as part of that whole getting married thing, we also changed our names.

Yeah, you read that right: our names, in the plural. I added his last name to mine, and he added mine to the front of his last name. So, we each have matching, hyphenated last names (the Urban-Watsons).

We took a fairly lax route to come to this decision. I think we always liked the idea of it, but in the last few weeks before the wedding, we weren’t exactly sure if 1) we should just keep our own last names, no name changing at all; 2) make up a completely new last name (I know of a Jewish couple who took a Hebrew word as their last name); or 3) each of us take the other’s last name to our own.

Just me taking his last name and abandoning my own altogether wasn’t even discussed. I’m not going to chastise any person who decides to take their partner’s last name, as they have their own reasons as to why. But my name is my name, and I like it. Urban is a bit of an unusual last name, and I have frequently been known just by Urban, or some weird variation of it. My husband did not want to ditch his last name, partly because it’s his name and part of his identity, and also because the name Watson has an aura of coolness around it, thanks to Sherlock Holmes.

But why shouldn’t I just hyphenate my last name, and he keep his? Because we wished to have a joint name, to further establish that we are partners, a family. From the way we see it (and I am aware people have different opinions, which I respect), if I took his but he didn’t take mine, I would be part of his family, but he wouldn’t be part of mine. One of the reasons why we got married was to formally become a part of each other’s families, and to mark the beginning of our own.

I think we decided the day we got our marriage license what we were going to do. We quickly ruled out making up a last name. While I like the idea, and the unity that it would instill in a relationship while firmly marking a new family, we both wanted to carry our own original names. Ultimately, as we wanted to formally and legally mark each other as family, hyphenating our last names for the both of us just made the most sense.

Deciding on the hyphenated last names was the easy part though. After filling out the paperwork at the Marriage License department for the county, we asked about the name change procedure. We were told that it would be a very simple and cheap process after mailing back the entirely filled out marriage license. We were happy that it would take so little effort. But then my soon-to-be husband mentioned that we would each be hyphenating our names. The woman at the counter looked confused. Looking straight at me, she repeatedly informed me that the woman usually takes the man’s last name, and that it is very simple to do so. In turn, we repeatedly told her that we were each hyphenating our names.

Still clearly flustered, she sent us to the Domestic department, where we were told that they did not know how to go about this, other than to legally change our names in court, after consulting a lawyer. It would cost me under $100 to take his last name, but in order to each hyphenate our names, a court and $1,000 would be needed. Needless to say, we still legally retain our own, individual last names. In a few months or a year we will undertake the grueling task of making Urban-Watson legal.

I left the office fuming, with our marriage license in hand (I quickly made an indignant Facebook status). Living in the year 2014 in the grand United States of America, I had thought that the legal system would have a simple process for either (or both) spouse(s) to change their names. I was not expecting to encounter such official sexism the day I got my marriage license. I’m already envisioning days to come when a to-be-married couple can change (or not change) either of their last names with equal ease. Oh, and I’m also anticipating the day when all marriage license forms list the couples information as “Spouse One” and “Spouse Two,” as opposed to the exclusive “Male” and “Female” titles.

Admittedly, it makes me cringe to hear Mr. and Mrs. [insert first and last names of husband]. I fully respect those who choose to be addressed as such, and the women who take their husband’s last name. But I am not my husband. I am not something that is branded with my husband’s name. I am my own unique person, who recently decided to legally bind someone else to myself. Our hyphenated last names reflect that. We remain individuals, while retaining our family history. But we are now part of the same family.

View Comments (6)
  • Hi Kristin,

    Thanks for this article. Experiences like yours belie the idea that our society has thoroughly moved beyond traditional gender-based marital naming practices. Our juridical and financial systems, among others, reinforce these practices structurally. I sympathize with your experience at the marriage license department. When my spouse and I married each other, we elected to keep our birth surnames. We did not have any difficulties at the marriage bureau, but our credit union refused to accept checks we received as wedding gifts. Some of our family members made out the checks assuming my spouse had taken my surname. We produced our marriage certificate, but to no avail. The teller and her supervisor at the credit union wanted to know when, not whether, my spouse would change her name. Eventually, we opened an account at a major national bank, which agreed to cash the checks. Nevertheless, questions and judgments about our choices persist. Recently, we applied to an apartment (in one of the most progressive cities in the country) and encountered raised eyebrows when we stated that we were married but had different names. I also look forward to the days to come when couples can change (or not change) their names as they see fit without encountering resistance, though I believe we must resist the assumption that their arrival is inevitable.


    • Hey Alec!
      Thanks a lot for the comment. I’m sorry that you and your wife had to go through the whole banking fiasco. That is so frustrating, even when presenting the marriage certificate. I was worried that my husband and i would encounter the same sort of issue, as many of the checks we received as gifts either had Mr. and Mrs. his last name, or Mr. and Mrs. his full name. But luckily we did not.
      You are right that we cannot assume that the days when name changing at marriage will be easy, or the days of gender equality will come. Action is the key to make these things happen.

  • I wish you luck. Stay strong and try not to waste anger, instead be patiently willful. I did this with my husband in 1996, in CA and it wasn’t a big deal to do it. He just had to do the same paperwork as I did. It’s 2014 and still people have a hard time finding our name at the pharmacy, at the doctor’s office, in the computer, the data base, ect. I have to explain the name should be alphabetical under the very first letter of the name.

  • Hi!
    We are in Canada and we did the same! Although there were no extra charges here in Canada, we were faced with the same reactions when we wet to legally make the change! My personal favourite was the woman working at the government office where we get our drivers license.. She gave me the form no problem but then told my husband that it would be a big process to change his name back if we got divorced!
    Congrats on finding a man that respects you and your family enough to join your names! :)

  • My fiance and I have been together for 12 years tomorrow (we met in high school). We are getting married later this year and we plan to change our names together as well. We considered hyphenating but the boy just doesn’t want to have children with hyphenated names. Full stop. Our family names don’t really blend together well either, but we both love them individually. So – we are going to create an entirely new one that is special and meaningful to us (we’ve already picked it out and our long relationship has afforded us ample time to be sure its the one we want lol), and move our surnames to our middle names. We live in a state that is very conservative and we will surely have to jump through hoops to get it done like this. So we may opt for him to change it first, a few months ahead of time, and then I will “take” his name (they really won’t let you get around that without a lot of struggling) when we are married. Ideally we could both take new names, at the same time, upon marriage – but only a handful of states will let you do anything like that so simply.

    I think its really cool that more people are doing this though. I mean, its an issue that’s going to have to be addressed eventually. As more gay couples are able to join in legal matrimony this is really going to be pushed to the forefront because there won’t be a precedent set for who takes whose name in that scenario. I feel there will be a lot of blending, double-barreling and creating totally new last names in the future. So we (as couples) are kinda like name-pioneers, on the front lines of that aspect of marriage right there with everyone else that will encounter this situation in the next several years. I hope general society embraces it, as for our families in this conservative hometown, well, we’ll see….for now the plan is just to try to give as much notice as possible and let them (especially the older ones) digest it for a few months so their complete befuddlement and/or anger will have mellowed into indifference or acceptance by the time the wedding rolls around ;)

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