For many people in the United States, it is customary for a spouse—usually the wife—to assume their spouse’s name after getting married. Name changes based on marital reasons are the most common reason for someone to change their name.
However, there are little-to-no significant legal reasons surrounding a person’s decision to change their name. It does not necessarily afford a person special legal rights, and it does not involve critical legal responsibilities either. So, why does this custom continue?
The Tradition on Taking Your Spouse’s Name
Traditionally, one person assumes the family name of their spouse. For the most part, wives are expected to take their husband’s last name upon marriage. The practice of changing one’s name upon divorce arose from old English traditions.
For several years in medieval England, people were primarily associated with their first name—or “given name”—rather than their “last name”—also known as their “family name.” However, references to a person’s family name grew as populations boomed, and the frequency of sharing the same name as a complete stranger increased.
According to English tradition, a wife was expected to substitute her own family name with her husband’s. This practice can be traced to the “coverture” doctrine, a legal tradition that considered both husband and wife to be one entity.
However, the husband was recognized as having control of the union’s assets, which impaired a woman’s ability to demonstrate her financial independence. As a result, women rarely—if ever—were considered as legally capable of owning property in their own name, as they were legally indistinct from their husbands. As a result, women often adopted the last names of their husbands.
As the implications of the coverture revealed a significant disparity in how women’s legal rights were treated by British society compared to men’s rights, women began demanding more legal equality in terms of political participation and property ownership. They started social activist causes to resolve the apparent disparity in power between the sexes.
Evolutions in the law
Eventually, as women fought for their civil rights, practical reasons for assuming their husband’s family name began to disappear. Women fought for society’s recognition of their basic rights in voting and property ownership.
In the United States, the name traditions surrounding marriage arose from those same traditions in England, even after the colonies won their independence from British rule. Eventually, the law began to reflect these paradigm shifts, as women were no longer legally required to assume or keep their spouse’s last name.
During the late 20th century, the incidence of women keeping their birth names throughout marriage peaked, as doing so was considered a symbol of social equality. Today, most marriages between men and women embrace traditional practices. However, as unconventionally family arrangements began to arise from situations where notions of gender and sexual identity have broadened, more people are opting for nontraditional naming conventions.
Reverting to Your Family Name After Divorce
The legal significance of changing one’s name upon marriage dwindled as the social standing of women grew. Laws began to reflect the autonomy of women in governing their names and personal identities. For example, in Illinois, women are afforded the choice of retaining their former spouse’s name or reverting to their family name without filing a petition for a name change.
Under 750 ILCS 5/413, a divorce judgment “shall contain a provision authorizing the person to resume the use of his or her former or maiden name, should he or she choose to do so at any time he or she chooses to do so. If a judgment contains such a provision, the person resuming the use of his or her former or maiden name is not required to file a petition for a change of name…”
Changing the Name of a Minor Child
For many societies, it is custom for a child to take on the family name of a parent. This helps identify the relationship and potential genealogy of a child has with their parents. American naming conventions rooted in English tradition involve a child assuming the family name of their father. However, these customs can vary from culture to culture, with some children adopting a combination of both parents’ family names.
The legal principles behind name changes for children focus on their best interests. Under Illinois law, the name of a child may be changed if doing so is in its best interests.
Courts consider a number of factors when deciding whether to allow a name change for children, including:
- “The wishes of the child’s parents and any person acting as a parent who has physical custody of the child.
- The wishes of the child and the reasons for those wishes. The court may interview the child in chambers to ascertain the child’s wishes with respect to the change of name. Counsel shall be present at the interview unless otherwise agreed upon by the parties. The court shall cause a court reporter to be present who shall make a complete record of the interview instantaneously to be part of the record in the case.
- The interaction and interrelationship of the child with his or her parents or persons acting like parents who have physical custody of the child, step-parents, siblings, step-siblings, or any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interest.
- The child’s adjustment to his or her home, school, and community.”
Get Answers from Law Offices of Jonathan Merel, P.C. Today
Are you curious about what the law says regarding your right to determine your own name or the name of your child? If so, you should contact Law Offices of Jonathan Merel, P.C. for legal advice. We are committed to helping families understand the scope of their legal rights and responsibilities when it comes to matters stemming from Illinois family law, such as name changes.