Keep or Change a Last Name?

Keep or Change a Last Name?

Should You Change Your Last Name? How To Decide.

To change or not to change, that is the question. You’re getting divorced and, quite frankly, you are not sure what you want to do to or with your last name. Do you keep his? Go back to your maiden name? Or pick something completely different?

“Many divorced women don’t want to be left with a last name that they did not grow up with. Many are reverting back to their maiden names, but more and more are choosing new last names,” said Kelly Utt-Grubb, a family naming expert who has been researching the topic of name changes for the past three years. “Some women don’t like their maiden names, so they pick a maternal grandmother’s last name or the name of another relative to whom they were very close. And some are even picking combinations of names. The new name is really a reflection of frame of mind and starting fresh.”

“While that may be completely understandable for the spouse who is getting divorced, what do you do about the children and their last names? It’s not as strange as it sounds. Some women who are divorcing change their children’s last names after divorce, too. I have seen some hyphenate their children’s last name, especially if she takes her maiden name back. And some women actually change their children’s name to their maiden name, if the father is out of the picture and, of course, age isn’t an issue.”

But with older children who might be more resistant to changing their own names, Utt-Grubb says they should still have a say. “With older children, it is often very important to them to leave their names as they are. Their identities are already established, and they often want it to keep it that way, but they should be involved in the decision regardless,” she said.

Convinced that there is a need for a service that helps people walk through the process of making a name change, Utt-Grubb founded Name Counsel Consulting services, a company that just does that, located in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. She says helping her clients navigate the name-changing waters helps relieve problems down the road because some common complications that divorced parents go through when there is a name change can be exasperating.

“When emergencies arise and Mom’s or Dad’s last name is different than the kids’, it can cause unnecessary confusion and critical delays. Medical files alphabetized under the wrong last name or school personnel reluctant to release a child to a parent with a different surname are a few of the potential difficulties,” said Utt-Grubb, 31. Having a clear discussion with school personnel and health care providers is key to making sure that this doesn’t happen.

“Some staff are very opinionated about this topic,” she said. “Don’t be surprised if you hear about that when you sit down to talk to them.” Oddly, while name changing often times is a no-brainer for a lot of women when they decide to marry, it becomes a major decision upon divorce.

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“I was married very young and changed my name from Bent to Young just because, well, that was what you did. I didn’t give it a second thought. But when I was getting divorced three years later, I changed it back as soon as I could. I didn’t wait till the divorce was over,” said Amanda Bent, 29, a cartographer from Truro, Nova Scotia.

Like most divorcees, Bent was looking to put the relationship behind her and reclaim her identity. “The divorce was not my idea,” she said. “And I felt, ‘you don’t want me, I don’t want your name.'”

“It felt great. And one of the very first things I changed was my name on was my e-mail at work. And [my soon-to-be ex-husband] had been e-mailing me back and forth, you know, to settle things, and the very first e-mail was from him. It was so funny. He wrote back, You can’t change your name yet.” Well, I could and I did.”

But now Bent has come full circle. Involved in another relationship for over five years now, she lives in a house with not just two different last names, but three. “He has a daughter with a different last name from him. But it’s funny, I feel we are family anyway and it doesn’t seem as important to me anymore. It’s almost like I did a big circle,” she said. “Family is your family. They are supposed to be that soft place to fall. Does it really matter what the last name is?”

But apparently it does, especially to those getting married. “I married later in life, and I had been Dr. Huber for over a decade, so I wasn’t really clear on what I wanted to do,” said Dr. Tammy Huber-Wilkins, a psychiatrist in private practice based in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Professionally, I was being called Dr. Huber or Dr. Huber-Wilkins. I was doing my personal business as Tammy Wilkins, but friends were still calling me Tammy Huber. I found myself not know which name to use and that was impacting my psyche.”

In the process of helping clients like Huber-Wilkins, Utt-Grubb asked her to fill out a detailed questionnaire. “They were wonderful questions, especially about childhood. What do you remember about the first time you knew what your name was? How did you feel about your name as child? It was really getting at what association I had with my birth name,” said the 43-year old. “I also had additional issues as I was also adopted. There were so many layers there. But when I got right down to it, it was about my identity and I felt a lot of guilt about abandoning my family name. I felt it dishonored my family.”

To make matters more complicated, Huber-Wilkins was also one of only two girls in her family. “The name stopped with my dad’s generation.”

To help break her of the habit she had developed over two years of marriage, namely, flipping from name to name, Utt-Grubb handed her another suggestion. “The biggest thing she had me do was to say, you don’t have to make a decision right now. Just pick one name and use it consistently for a month and don’t allow yourself to go back and forth. See how that feels.”

It must have felt pretty good, because she has continued to use the hyphenation of the two last names. “I really have found that it didn’t feel honorable to let go of my maiden name and just take my husband’s name. But I am also really proud to be married, even though the hyphenated last name can be cumbersome,” she said. “But it feels true to who I am.”


So you are thinking of changing your last name. Maybe you want to go back to your maiden name after your divorce. Maybe you would like to hyphenate the kid’s names, so they can include yours, too. Or maybe you just want to chuck it all and take on a whole new name.

No matter what name you pick, if it is different than your old moniker, Kelly Utt-Grubb, founder of Name Counsel Consulting services, located in Raliegh-Durham, N.C. ( suggests doing the following to help minimize the glitches after you make the change. And Plan ahead. Inform everyone of the name change; schools, sports organizations, associations, doctors, all health care providers, postal service, insurance companies, family members and even business associates if applicable. “You want to make sure you cover all the bases,” says Utt-Grubb. “It helps to provide it in writing for some of these services, especially the children’s schools, where you might even need supporting documentation.”

1. Talk to your extended family and friends.

“Involving your loved ones helps with support and minimize the surprises. Sit down with those who might be involved with you and your children and clearly explain your choices,” she said. “This will help earn respect for eventual decision and prevent those who might influence the children from making careless mistakes.”

2. Be ready for opinionated staff.

“Even though the world may seem like a changed place, traditional values are still deeply entrenched”, says Utt-Grubb. “Some may not understand a non-traditional choice and have a lot of opinion on it,” she said. It’s important you know that going in so it doesn’t irritate you.”

3. Make sure you follow up.

“A few weeks after you make the name change, call or visit the various offices to make sure that the names have been changed and changed correctly. In the long run, the office staff is happy to check for you because it makes their lives easier,” she said.

4. Speak up immediately if someone addresses you incorrectly.

“Don’t just let it pass”, says Utt-Grubb. “Just correct them immediately. Too often we let our own insecurities keep us silent and that will of course create confusion.”

Most importantly, Utt-Grubb says whatever you decide, choose carefully, when making name changes. “But when you are done, be proud of your choice. Project confidence in your choice because it is your identity. Be an example with your kids. Ultimately, what you are doing is help change society’s collective mind while developing pride in your own name and grace under pressure.”

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