What do you consider core to your identity – the things that make you “you”? Is it your relationships with the people around you? Your profession? Your own personality and quirks? How about your name?
These are not idle musings when you’re in the thick of divorce. As if the hundred other decisions you’re forced to make weren’t already enough, if you took on your spouse’s last name (or merely added it to your own), you may also have to make the call on what you’re going to do with your name post-divorce. What will you now do with this remnant of your past life? And what will your new identity be?
With everything you have going on, you may be tempted to take the path of least resistance and do whatever feels most expedient in the moment. But if you’re thoughtful, you can use the one decision that’s completely in your hands as the starting point of crafting your new identity after divorce – and do it in a way that honors your authentic emotional self while best positioning you for your next chapter.
Ask Yourself These Seven Questions to Choose Your Smart Path
Your legal name is tangled up in a web of complex issues. There are the emotional ones, inevitably tied to your feelings about the marriage itself. Then there are the more practical, but important, consequences that may impact your future in significant ways.
Unpack the issue and gain clarity by asking yourself these seven questions to make your decision:
1) How closely tied is your sense of identity with your last name?
Is your married name how you’re known, recognized, and respected in the community? Does your married name embody the valuable professional reputation you’ve worked hard to earn? How long have you had your married name? The longer you’ve been married, the more your core identities tend to be wrapped up in your married name. Consider the ties, the recognition, and even the professional reputation you may be giving up along with your married name. Is the change worth it to you?
While you’re at it, don’t forget to think about your emotional reaction to taking on a name you may have identified with last as a young adult. Would you feel comfortable being given the same moniker you had then? After all, you may be and think of yourself as a very different (and better) person now than you were then.
2) How do you feel about your marriage?
Does thinking of your marriage and subsequent divorce invoke mostly good and neutral memories, or unhappy and painful ones? If mentioning your married name triggers negative feelings, starting over with a new name may well be worth the cost to gain fresh, positive feelings about yourself and your future life.
3) How do you feel about having a different last name than those of your kids?
If you have kids, does it cause you a pang to lose this connection with them at a time when you may feel like you’re already losing so much? Will you feel more connected, and more easily able to make the transition if you can keep at least this one thing unchanged? Then consider keeping your married name.
4) How important is your name to your professional reputation and future livelihood?
Have you worked hard for years, maybe decades, to earn the professional reputation that will help you build your financial future? If you’re an author or industry expert, for example, your future income may hinge on how easily your audience can discover you through means like Google
If you risk losing recognition and future income by changing your last name, consider retaining it to preserve your income prospects and financial security.
5) Do you have the bandwidth to go through the formalities and hassle of making the name change?
As with all legal matters, changing your name involves a lot of red tape and formalities that will inevitably take more time and need more of your attention than you think. Happily, though, there are many services that can take the hassle out and do it for you for a small charge. If you have the bandwidth or don’t mind paying a small fee to take care of the formalities, a new name may be well worth the price.
6) Is remarriage on the horizon?
Are you open to reconsidering marriage in the future? If so, what would you want to do with your name then – both if you change your name now and if you don’t? Give this some thought now. By doing so, whether you change your name now or not, you’ll be clearer on the ramifications if and when you decide to tie the knot with the right person in the future.
7) Is your spouse making your post-divorce name a negotiation issue?
It may be surprising to hear that to change your name the option must be put in your divorce decree. Don’t make the mistake of signing a document without it or you will be forced to get an amendment, which means more legal fees and court action. A court won’t and can’t force you to change your name against your will. However, your divorcing spouse may think it important enough to make it an item in the divorce negotiation. They may do this for emotional or other reasons. Whatever the case, think through carefully if you’re willing to give up valuable negotiating chips before you decide on your position. The answers you gave to the six questions above should help you make a more informed decision either way.
How to Make Your Changed Identity a Reality
Okay, you’ve thought through your options and have decided to start your next chapter with a new name. What do you do next?
There are two main sets of actions you need to take:
- Making the legal change as recognized by the courts, and
- Updating your name in all the places that matter
Making the court-recognized change
The laws to change your name vary by state. In most states, you can start with a court document that is usually your final divorce decree or your initial petition for dissolution for marriage. Be sure to include language to specifically request the name change back to your birth name in your documents.
It’s possible your state requires that you submit a petition after the divorce, similar to anyone else wanting a name change (for reasons other than a divorce). California, for example, will allow a name change both prior to and after the divorce being finalized by submitting applications per their website. In many states, like Illinois for example, you can put in a request for a formal order with the judge to begin using your maiden name prior to the divorce being finalized. If extra costs are an issue, it may be worth waiting until the divorce is finalized. Get the right details for your state.
Updating Your New Name Where It Matters
It’s not enough to just have the courts recognize your name change – it’s critically important to reflect that change in the areas that have big impacts on your future. To help you prioritize, we categorized these into tiers, so you ensure you take care of the big ones first:
Tier 1 Items: Critical Legal Status Items
- Social Security card
- Driver’s License / State ID
Tier 2 Items: Financially Impactful Items
- Bank and financial accounts
- Wills/Trusts/estate planning documents
- Insurance policies
- State tax authority (IRS will be notified through the SSA)
- Vehicle registration and title
Tier 3 Items: Other Necessary Changes
- Credit Cards
- Debts (such as student loans)
- School/work payroll/benefits, including company retirement plans
- Utility bills
- Voter registration
- Loyalty or points programs
- Children’s school
Make It Easier on Yourself
Start with the social security card and your driver’s license. Bring the original court document with the proper stamps or notaries to the Social Security Administration office or the DMV.
A word to the wise: Look up your state’s DMV site to make sure you have all the documents you need before you make the trip to your local driver’s license facility. These are notorious for their long waits and demanding requirements so spending a few minutes up front can save you a lot of hassle down the road.
If you want to make this even easier, consider a service that does all the work for you. NewlyNamed is one such service that takes a lot of the work off your shoulders. At this site, you’ll fill out an online questionnaire to receive a hard-copy or electronic name change kit that will streamline the entire process and take care of it for you, in exchange for a small fee.
Now back to you. What path will best serve your future goals and aspirations?
What will you name your future?