One of the biggest decisions that divorcing women face is whether or not to return to their maiden name by getting a name change before divorce. In most states, once you are divorced you can easily reclaim your former name for a small fee.
In my state of North Carolina, once you have your decree in hand, you can go to the courthouse, slap down $10, and boom, no questions asked, no lengthy legal process necessary, you’ve got your old name back.
But what if you are not quite ready to divorce? What if you are separated or thinking of reconciliation, but know that you don’t want his name anymore? What options do you have?
Getting a Name Change Before Divorce
It may be part of “becoming yourself” again.
When I separated from my husband, I initially wasn’t sure if I was going to go through with the divorce. There was a chance we would work it out, but in the meantime, I was certain I didn’t want to continue using “our” surname. For one thing, he wasn’t the man I thought he was. But it was more than that.
When I had gotten married, decades before, I had wanted to keep my own name. I was a budding feminist and thought it was patriarchal for women to transfer identity to their spouses, but my husband-to-be and my family were adamant: “A shared name signifies a unified family. Your children will have to explain why your name is different. What are you thinking?”
I thought, “Oh well, I know who I am, what difference does it really make? I’ll just go along and make everyone happy.” But at this point, especially given the difficulties my husband and I were having, I wanted my unique self back. So, I began what turned out to be a long and surprising, but ultimately worthwhile, legal process of getting a name change before divorce.
Curiously, I had already been able to change my name on some credit cards and magazine subscriptions just by contacting the company and telling them my preference. Great! Lowe’s and Macy’s and Newsweek knew me the way I wanted to be known. I also changed things like my email address name and my Facebook profile on my own. But when I went to the driver’s license office, I hit a big roadblock. They wouldn’t issue me a new license unless I had an official adjudicated document.
Others Have Thought About Doing What You Are Doing
The police officer I spoke to at my local DMV was sympathetic. She was Greek and had just gotten married at the age of 38. Her name was something like Souvlakopolis, and she was very attached to that appellation. She had married a Scots-Irish boy with the name of Ledford. “That’s just not me,” the woman told me. “I don’t feel like a Ledford. I feel erased. I wish I hadn’t given up my own name.”
I told her I would get back to her once I accomplished the job for myself, and let her know how I did it. As I moved forward, most of the people I encountered were either puzzled by my action or thought it was a bold and brave thing to be doing. I know it felt like an important statement to me. It felt like I was standing up for myself. The world would “call me by my name” damn it, the name of my own choosing.
Starting the Process of Getting a Name Change Before Divorce:
Take It One Step at a Time
I went to my county courthouse and picked up the 8-page packet of instructions which informed me: “You alone are responsible for your case. Use this packet at your own risk.” It made the name change process sound like using a dangerous insecticide. I received a list of twelve hoops I was going to have to jump through, and, if I got everything right, the powers that be might grant me my wish.
In the end, a judge would review the paperwork and decide for me or against me. It was daunting, especially to someone already in the emotional throes of working through a marriage crisis. But I took a deep breath and decided anything can be done one step at a time. I opened the packet.
Still, I was unprepared for the work involved with getting a name change before divorce, for the questions I had to answer, and for the investigations I was subjected to. I was stressed and emotionally drained already by interpersonal issues and reconciliation efforts. But I was determined. It couldn’t be that unusual a thing to do, could it, otherwise, they wouldn’t have a complete Adult Name Change packet issued by the Judicial District Self Help Center in the first place!
I decided to welcome this challenge, and it was fun to realize that if I was going to go through with the name change, I could change it to anything I wanted. In my own case, I returned precisely to my original given name, but I could have chosen to be Flora Lee Amelia if I had wanted to, instead of just Catherine.
I was undergoing the same legal process that transgender individuals had to use, I realized. David could and would become Autumn, and Sandra could and would become Erik. It humbled me to think that I had no difficulties compared to Autumn and Erik. My baggage would be comparatively easy to carry.
The first step was to answer a questionnaire. Why do you want to do this? As if it were a suspicious activity. “Now comes the petitioner…the petitioner desires to change his/her name for the following good and sufficient reasons…”
I hoped that my desire to control my own name was a Good Reason, but I wasn’t sure what the judge would think. And then followed a slew of questions which were supposed to prove I wasn’t trying to escape from paying taxes or child support or debt payments. Next was step two, the petition itself, showing the changes I requested. It had to be notarized.
Be Prepared to Wait: The Wheels of Bureaucracy Are Slow
As I looked over the list of other documents and steps I would be taking, I realized I would be investigated by both the State Bureau of Investigation as well as the FBI. Maybe I was an escaped felon, looking to alter my name and disappear with a new identity! This legal process, therefore, required fingerprinting. Really? But if this was the way it worked, I’d go down to the jail and pay them $45 to roll an ink pad over every one of my fingers.
Just finding my way to the jail, and to the right office, felt problematic. I was bringing myself to the attention of the criminal justice system, when I’d never had anything more than a speeding ticket, just to make this happen! I mailed off the fingerprints with the necessary request for a criminal history check, and I waited.
This was in early November, and it was mid-March before I heard back from the FBI. Fortunately, they overlooked that big forgery scandal I’d been involved in (right?) and there were no red flags on me; I was All Clear.
In the meantime, I’d had additional steps to complete. I got two affidavits of good character – that was an easy one. Who doesn’t have a couple of friends who can vouch for the fact that you’re a great person? I needed to have a title search done to ensure that there were no judgments or civil actions outstanding against me. I also sent off for certified copies of my birth certificate, which precipitated another set of fees and another period of waiting for the bureaucratic wheels and the postal system to do their thing.
Every document had its own set of procedures and accompanying glitches. When I received my official (with the seal) birth certificate from the State of Tennessee, they had misspelled my middle name, so that correction would now become part of my legal name change, as well.
Don’t Give Up: This Is Part of Your New Self-Empowerment
Eventually, though, all my documents were assembled and I was ready to submit them to the court for approval. The last thing I did was publicly post my request at the courthouse on a big bulletin board. I was apparently the only one making such a “minor” change. My maiden name had been used as a middle name, so essentially I just dropped my husband’s surname. Other folks made more radical transitions.
Enter Autumn and Erik again. Some folks seemed to have just hated their given names: Raewanda, for instance, wanted to be Olivia. There were kids who were adopted by foster or step-parents, as well. We all put ourselves out there for public scrutiny. Not something I relished. Divorced women didn’t have to bear this kind of open-market exposure, but here I was.
At last, the public posting period was done, and I walked up the marble staircase at the courthouse one more time. There was a mural over my head showing Beautiful Justice in her white robes, eyes blindfolded and scales in hand. I handed the completed packet and the fee of $120 cash, through the grille to the Clerk. Then I went home and waited. About a week later, a judge called me. A female judge.
I thought she’d be understanding, but whatever second-guessing I had not done, she did it for me now: Why do you want to make this change? That question again. Why after so long? Did you have a problem of some kind with your married name? Do you think this is what you really want? Will you change your mind and want it reversed, the way someone does after they get a big tribal tattoo?!
I told her my story. “All right then,” she said finally. “I don’t get many cases like yours, but I will approve the petition.”
After finally completing the legal process of getting a name change before divorce, I took my official document to the DMV and got a new driver’s license. While I was there, I saw Officer Ledford. “Look,” I showed her. “It’s doable. Your reason doesn’t have to be the same as mine. But women deserve to have their own names, whenever they want, if that is what they want.”