As Juliet stated to Romeo in Shakespeare’s tale of star crossed lovers, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” Her statement emphasizes her love for Romeo as an individual, not as an extension of his family or of course his family surname of Montague. So where did the concept of a women “taking a husband’s last name” come from and how difficult is it to “shed” that name if the union doesn’t survive?
The taking of a husband’s surname is a long standing tradition. Before suffrage, women were viewed as property of either a father or a husband. When women married, “ownership” in her passed from her father to her new husband and thus, the transfer from her father’s surname to that of her new husband. As women were not permitted to own real property or manage money on their own, the assumption of a husband’s surname assimilated the women with her husband and his property, allowing her prestige and stature in her town.
Times have changed, but what about the laws of assuming a spouse’s last name? In Pennsylvania, except under certain circumstances, it is illegal for an individual to assume a different surname from that which he or she has been known. That is unless that person first petitions the court for a change in name and then receives permission by the court, through the issuance of an order of court, to change it.
One of the exceptions is marriage. As stated above, it has always been a long standing tradition that a woman assumes the surname of her husband, immediately following the marriage ceremony. Women have also been permitted, immediately following the marriage ceremony, to use their family surname as a middle name or hyphenate their family surname with the new husband’s surname. The same is not true for men. If a husband wished to assume the surname of his new wife, he would first have to petition the court and request the same. Only after he received permission from the court, through the issuance of a court order, could he begin using his wife’s surname.
Another exception is divorce. Any person who is a party to a divorce action may, at any time prior to or subsequent to the entry of a divorce decree, resume a prior surname by filing written notice.
Death of a spouse is also an exception. A surviving spouse may at any time, resume a prior surname by filing written notice, accompanied by the decedent spouse’s death certificate.
In all circumstances, if one is trying to evade creditors or pay his or her fair share of taxes, a name change will not be granted.
Cara A. Boyanowski concentrates her practice in the field of domestic law and wills and estates. As a domestic law practitioner, she represents clients in simple and complex divorce, support, custody, alimony, step-parent adoptions, name change and same-sex divorce and custody matters. She works out of Obermayer’s Harrisburg, PA office and can be reached at 717-234-5315 or at Cara.Boyanowski@obermayer.com.