Shakespeare thought little of names. Why else did he have Juliet Capulet say, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet …” For The Bard, the substance of a person or object was found in its essence, not its name. You may not feel so gracious if your ex-wife is continuing to use your last name (your surname) after you two are divorced. What can you do? What legal recourse does Virginia give you, if you want to protect your good name?
The Tradition of Taking the Husband’s Last Name
No Virginia or federal law compels either a husband or wife to take the other spouse’s surname. Tradition and a sense of unity often makes a wife feel she should take her husband’s last name. Her own last name comes, of course, from some patronym even if her own mother did not take her own father’s last name. Somewhere in everyone’s ancestral past, the surname comes from a male, and that tradition still carries a lot of emotional weight in the 21st century.
Legally, your ex-wife took your surname to seal the deal and simplify matters for you both. Even if she preferred Ms. to Mrs., she indicated to family, friends and businesses that she was bound to you and you to her. She probably went through several rounds of paperwork with the DMV and other agencies to change records to reflect the new last name.
So Can You Make Your Ex-wife Use Her Maiden Name?
With divorce, just as no law compelled her to take your surname, no law compels her to give it up. She legally became Ms. or Mrs. You, and she, can choose to keep that surname or change it.
Changing her name is a fairly simple matter in Virginia. The Virginia courts have a ready-to-go form for it, in full compliance with the good ol’ Code of Virginia (long-time readers of this column may notice a trend regarding the Code — nearly everything is touched by it in the Commonwealth).
The highly original title of this particular bit of the Code goes by, “How name of person may be changed,” under § 8.01-217, and the process offers the usual legal precautions but puts no restrictions on divorced Virginians.
The Code means you cannot compel your wife to change her name. You can encourage her, perhaps even entice her to do so (say, with cash or a willingness to be more flexible on parenting time), but you cannot order her to remove your last name from her identity.
Legal Reasons She CAN’T Change Her Name
That same bit of Code does give reasons why she cannot change her name. No name change for her if she is:
- A probationer
- A registered Sex Offender
- Registered with the Crimes Against Minors Registry
- Incarcerated (though some flexibility is offered on this distinction)
In all of Shakespeare his only truly evil character was Iago, Othello’s unfaithful “friend.” All his other villains believed what they were doing was right. Iago just wanted to ruin Othello.
Your ex-wife is no Iago. She has reasons to want to keep your name. Since you have no legal recourse, talk to her. Find out her motives in sticking with Ms. or Mrs. You. She could be doing it:
- To preserve the bond with her children
- She prefers your last name — if she was unhappy being Keihanaikukauakahihulihe’ekahaunaele and your last name is O’Swango, for example
- To keep her professional credentials acquired during your marriage
- As a testament to the length of your marriage
- To maintain a public presence as a business owner or local celebrity
Can You Tame the Name with a Pay Off?
At some time, you will either have to accept her use of your name or negotiate a way for you both to be satisfied. If she has dug in her high heels during the first incendiary year of your divorce, perhaps simply waiting it out will work.
Approach her after the anger and conflict has deflated and, again, offer her concessions. Legally you are doing nothing improper to financially or emotionally encourage her to restore her maiden name. You would be doing something illegal if you threatened her with harm for not changing her name.
Offer to pay the fees for the name change. Offer to pay for a weekend getaway, or help with contacting all agencies, companies and professional offices about the change. Find out what she would need to give up your surname.
You can even ply her with Shakespeare, who wrote in King John, “When we were happy we had other names.” You could posit that restoring her maiden name may make her happier.
Your telephone call to 757-383-9184 puts you directly in touch with The Firm For Men. We focus on protecting men’s rights, including basic rights to identity and name. Contact us online or by telephone or, if you are in the Virginia Beach area, stop by our offices.