Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Benefit #10: Name Changes

This article is part of my running series documenting the legal, financial, and economic benefits and protections of civil marriage. While I do not think that marriage is the most important "gay issue," I write this series to demonstrate that the denial of marriage equality has real, tangible, and unfair consequences for gay and lesbian couples. So-called marriage defenders, on the other hand, are able to predict nothing more than abstract future harms to society they think will occur if gay couples are allowed to marry. Mere predictions (based largely in misinformation, misused statistics, and bias) are not sufficient to deny a group of people equal rights. But that, I suppose, is an article for another day.

Today's benefit is the legal right to change one's name. Changing one's last name after marrying is a personal decision that some people make. Historically, women have taken on the last names of their husbands and most women continue to do so ("woman" as chattel, however, is also a whole 'nother blog article).

Symbolically, married spouses who share the same last name signifies for some people that they are individuals joined together into one family. Accordingly, some same-sex couples desire to take the symbolic step of having the same last name. This is especially true for same-sex couples who are raising children- as they want their children to have the same last name as both of their parents.

To begin, I should state that name change laws differ on a state-by-state basis. (And, this is all general information not intended to provide guidance or legal advice on anyone's specific situation). Moving on then, the general rule regarding name changes is that anyone can change his or her name, with a few exceptions. However, when it comes to the procedures one uses to change one's name, marriage offers a fast and oftentimes free route to a name-change. Admittedly, this benefit seems flippant when compared to the more substantial benefits and protections of marriage such as hospital visitation and inheritance of property, but since I'm compiling a list I may as well be thorough. Besides, a lot of little costs and annoyances like this example can add up pretty quickly. Legal procedures such as creating a health care power of attorney and changing one's name require knowledge, time, money, and sometimes the guidance of an attorney. Thus, many of these "equalizing" procedures are out of reach for same-sex couples of lower socioeconomic statuses.

In the state where I live (Illinois), married couples and same-sex couples have two different routes to change their names:

A. Heterosexual Married Couples (Where one person takes the other's name)

1. The person wishing to change her or his (but probably her) name simply starts using the new name.
2. To change a driver's license and other documents, the person changing her/his name merely presents the marriage certificate to the government agency. (Marriage certificates are usually about $15 depending on county. Couples must also get a marriage license before getting married; these are about $30).
3. If the couple divorces, the spouse who changed his/her name can have it changed back to his/her original name for free as part of the divorce proceedings.

B. Same-sex couples (where one person takes the other's name)

1. One or both partners file a petition for a name change
2. He/She/They must publish notice of the name change for a fee of $85
3. He/She/They must appear before a judge at a later date (about 3 weeks later), get a court order that officially changes the name, and pay a filing fee of $220.
4. To change a driver's license and other documents, the person changing his/her name presents the court order to government agencies.
5. If the couple splits up and someone wants to change his/her name back to his/her original name, the partner who changed his/her name must repeat these procedures, including paying the fee, to revert back to the original name.

As you can see, name changes are more time-consuming, arduous, and costly for same-sex couples than they are for opposite-sex couples in Illinois. In addition, it bears mentioning that this unfairness also affects men in many states. Thanks to lingering archaic policies which assume that only a woman would want to take her husband's name, a man who wants to take his wife's last name is either not allowed to or must follow the procedures that a same-sex couple does in order to change his name. For men who want to change their names automatically upon marriage, these laws are not fair. I wonder why men's rights advocates aren't fighting this injustice.

Members of same-sex couples changing their names is, actually, more common than one might think- especially when children are involved. As far as what they change it to, it is sort of refreshing that same-sex couples have come up with several ways to combine and change their names. As many heterosexual women feel somewhat obligated to take their husband's name (and most men expect them to), we at least have freedom to depart from this historical tradition that assume that all women want to be subsumed into the identity of their male partner.

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