15 years ago, I legally changed my name. Here’s why I regret it.
I never questioned whether I would change my last name after marriage. Of course I would. It’s just what women do. At least, it’s what most women I know do — get married, change their name on Facebook, then legally change their name (in that order).
Several women I know use their maiden name professionally but their spouse’s name in their personal life and on legal documents. That was my plan –– to use Butler as my TV credit and my husband’s last name in every other aspect of my life. In 2007, I got married, updated my Facebook profile, created a new Gmail address, and legally changed my surname to Butler Bell.
Fifteen years later, I’m still not used to it. I hesitate whenever someone asks me for my last name, like a kid in Witness Protection who can’t remember which one to use. In various systems, I’m filed under the names Bell, Butler, Butlerbell, Butler-Bell, and my favorite, Butterball.
Changing your name is a personal decision and there is no right or wrong answer. But I do encourage women to consider the following before shlepping to the Social Security office for a name change:
You are not required by law to change your name after marriage.
However, women used to be. After the Norman conquest, the Normans introduced the English to the doctrine of coverture, which became English common law. Coverture laws stated that a married woman’s identity was “covered” by her husband and she had no legal identity apart from him. Married women were unable to own property, sign legal documents, or earn a salary.
This suppressive common law survived well into the 70s, when the Supreme Court finally struck down a Tennessee state law that required married women to use their husband’s surname in order to vote.
If you’re considering a name change, do a test run.
My legal surname is Butler Bell. No hyphen, just a space. I wrongly assumed people would use both names with addressing me, but most just call me Mrs. Bell.
Being called Bell has always felt inauthentic to me, like I’m pretending to be someone else. Perhaps it’s because I’m a second wife, living in a house where the ex once lived, parenting the children she gave birth to. Maybe I’m projecting, but it doesn’t change how I feel. It’s not my name. It never has been.
If you’re considering a name change, I suggest using it to book a few reservations. See how you feel when they call it out. Take if for a test drive before you buy.
If you plan to have children, consider what last name(s) you might give them.
When Levon was born, we didn’t have a first or last name picked out. I knew I wanted Butler to be a part of it somehow, but I was on the fence about hyphenating given that my names aren’t hyphenated. At the same time, I was afraid if our last names didn’t match, it would create an additional layer of identity crisis for my adopted child. It was my father who ultimately decided Levon’s surname: “He needs to have the same last name as his brothers.” As someone with a sibling, I wholeheartedly agreed. That’s how we settled on Butler as his middle name and Bell as his last name.
As a feminist, I love to see other women keep their name after marriage. As a mom, I absolutely wish that all parents and their kids shared a last name because it’s a total pain in the ass when my kid wants a playdate, and I don’t know which mom to call because no one’s last name matches. For this reason alone, I list myself under Bell in the school directory.
A note to stepparents: One of the main reasons I legally added Bell to my name was because I once had an issue picking up my stepson from school. The judgy old lady in the school office did not believe that my 25 year old self was a stepmother and refused to release my stepson to me to me because our last names weren’t the same. Never mind the fact I was listed on his emergency release form. In that moment, I realized that between having stepchildren and knowing we planned to adopt, life for me would be easier if all of our names matched on legal documents. This isn’t to say that you have to change your name. Just be aware that if you don’t, you may be questioned more often. Prepare yourself for the occasional nuisance in the school office or airport.
If your soon-to-be spouse has an ex who kept their last name, be honest about your feelings.
Fun fact — my middle name is the same as my husband’s ex-wife’s first name, and she kept his last name after their divorce. If I had dropped my maiden name, I’d be Jessica Lee Bell to her Lee Bell. It actually doesn’t bother me at all, but I can imagine how it would bother some people. I know women who are extremely angry that their husband’s ex kept his last name after divorce, but here’s how I see it:
- His last name is not mine to give or take away. This issue is between him and her.
- There are only so many surnames. Bell and Butler are both common, and I’m not asking anyone else to stop using them, so why ask her?
- Because we share children, she is my family. No matter what her name is, she will always be the mother of my stepsons. I have no issue with her sharing a last name with them.
Not everyone feels the way I feel. If it’s going to bother you to share a last name with your spouse’s ex, don’t do it. Simple as that.
Most importantly, be consistent with whatever name you choose.
My biggest regret surrounding my name change is that I haven’t been consistent with the name I use in documents. Doctors’ offices have me filed under two or even three different names, which means pharmacies and insurance companies also have multiple profiles for me. Any store with a rewards system has me listed under Butler, Bell or Butler Bell, depending on which name I provided during any given check out.
Furthermore, not hyphenating leads to another series of issues. My most recent driver’s license incorrectly lists my last name as Bell and my middle name as Lee Butler, despite me being extraordinarily clear with the DMV worker. This differs from my passport, Social Security card, and TSA pre-check registration, which lists my last name as Butler Bell. I was recently flagged at an airport because my license didn’t match the last name on my boarding pass, which didn’t match ANY of my documentation because the airline system doesn’t allow for spaces in last names.
Just this week, Quest Labs lost a panel of my blood work. After an extensive search, they realized it was filed under Bell, not Butler Bell, despite the fact that several other vials of blood were filed under the correct name.
Whatever name you chose, commit to it. Give the same name to every person who asks, even if it requires you to spell it out and explain, “It’s not hyphenated, just two last names with a space in between.” You’ll thank me later.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve realized what I want: to be a person who wants to change her last name.
But I’m not.
I’m also a person who loves sharing a last name with her children, as long as it’s not used by anyone outside the school circle.
So which is it? Should you change your name? Should I have changed mine?
Let me know if you figure it out.
Jessica Butler is the co-founder of Raise, stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to Raise, she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and six-year-old son, Levon.