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11 things I wish I'd known before I changed my last name

Saying "I do" is the easy part.
/ Source: TODAY

I always wanted to change my name. As a little girl saddled with an unwieldy combination of hard-to-pronounce first and last names, I took it for granted that one day I’d fall in love with someone with an ordinary, easy-to-pronounce name and adopt it as my own.

But when that day finally came, I was surprised by how complicated the whole thing turned out to be — not only emotionally, but logistically! It took me several annoying months to shed my maiden name on paper, and many more to get used to my new one.

Six years later, here are the things I wish I’d known before I started the process.

Our wedding day, before the harsh realities of name change court set in.
Our wedding day, before the harsh realities of name change court set in.

1. It starts before you say “I do.”

When we went to the courthouse to get our marriage license a few weeks before our wedding, I didn’t realize I’d be asked to make my name change decision right there on the spot. It turns out there’s a little box on the license application and checking it means your last name is changed automatically. While I was sure I’d want to change it at some point, this felt like a sneak attack, and my husband and I had to have a quick — and slightly awkward — conversation about this major life decision in front of an impatient stranger.

This topic can be emotional for everyone involved, especially if you and your partner aren't in agreement on whether you should change your last name. So make sure you discuss the whole thing before you tie the knot — a last-minute surprise isn’t fun for anyone!

2. Rip the band-aid off.

This was, without a doubt, the most unanimous tip I heard from women who’d taken the name change plunge: just jump right in.

“I wish I’d done it all at once,” said Julia Wu, who ended up making the change gradually over three years. “It was a logistical nightmare to have two different last names at the same time. I had to jump between names depending on who I was talking to, and what document they were looking at. When paying bills I would forget which name to use, as I had different names on various bank accounts and credit cards. I hadn't felt ready to change my name all at once, but in hindsight, it would have made things much easier to manage.”

3. You will feel like a secret agent — or a liar.

I still remember being on my honeymoon when a hotel employee asked me my name and I gave her my new one for the first time. I said it with a question mark at the end, like I was trying to pass off a bad lie. I felt like a total weirdo and a fraud for months, especially when I had to leave my name in a voicemail or type it out as my new byline at work. It was only when I switched to a new job, where no one knew me by my old name, that I finally stopped feeling like a fake.

Juggling your new and old name can be particularly confusing if you opt for the popular choice of keeping one name at work and the other at home.

“My original plan was to use my husband's name in my personal and family life and my maiden name professionally,” said author Karen Thompson Walker. “But I was surprised by how deeply unsettling that arrangement felt, like having two completely separate identities, so I started using both last names, which immediately seemed much more natural and accurate. It is, however, a bit of a mouthful and the source of a certain amount of confusion for other people.”

Finding that sweet spot in the middle is key. “I changed my last name officially a few years ago — I was traveling with my family and I was the only one who didn't have the same last name,” said TODAY anchor Sheinelle Jones. “Also, I would go to pick up my son from school and it was a tad weird for me to have a different last name. I decided I would change it on my license and in my personal life, but keep ‘Jones’ on TV. For me it was the best of both worlds. My kids call me ‘Sheinelle Jones’ and giggle — they think it's funny! To them, that's the lady on TV.”

Now that we have a baby, I really like that we all share one name.
Now that we have a baby, I really like that we all share one name.Samantha Okazaki / TODAY

4. You will feel loss — but also, experience a gain.

I lost my father very suddenly nine months before I got married, and after he died, I started to feel doubts about my long-held desire to change my last name. Giving up my dad’s name felt like losing another part of him.

But getting married also meant starting a new family, and I liked the idea of all of us having the same name, like a team we were on together. Of course, having the same last name isn’t what makes you a family, by any stretch of the imagination. Once we were married, though, I did get a thrill out of signing cards from “The Duersons," and that happy feeling only expanded when we had a baby. Now I love being one big package deal — plus, it makes addressing envelopes so much easier!

In truth, changing my name didn’t move me any further away from the family I was born into or alter my love for my parents; I didn’t stop being a Hartenstein just because I became a Duerson.

5. Making the change can reveal some surprising stereotypes.

This comes into play when you're dealing with a couple of mixed ethnicities, where changing your name can also bring with it some cultural implications. For me, dropping my Jewish last name has meant I'm no longer asked about my background every time I introduce myself. I'm also half Indian, but for some reason with a more Caucasian-sounding last name, no one asks me about my ethnic background anymore.

Pamela Horn (née Chinn) said her new last name catches people off guard. "When I show up for a meeting with people I've corresponded with over email, they're always surprised, like they weren't expecting an Asian woman," she said. "Sometimes they don't really believe me — I have to say my name and confirm again to make it really sink in."

I now pronounce you...ready to wait in line.
I now pronounce you...ready to wait in line.

6. Do your homework.

Ok, let’s talk about the nitty gritty stuff. There’s no sugarcoating it: Changing your name takes a lot of work, but it can go faster if you're prepared.

First, know what to expect. Look up and fill out the forms for your name change petition in advance — you can find them and instructions on your city’s website. (Here’s the form for New York City, for example.) Be exhaustive in what you read so you don’t show up missing something easy and have to start over.

Check the hours before you head to the courthouse! I was turned away due to timing at least twice (including once because they were closed for a two-hour lunch break). Oh, and bring your birth certificate. Don’t have yours or can’t find it? Contact the city where you were born and they can send you a replacement, usually for a nominal fee.

7. Changing your middle name changes the game.

Let’s say your name is Jane Ashley Doe, and you marry Jesse James, and you checked that box at the courthouse that I mentioned above. Congratulations! Your new name is Jane Ashley James.

But what if you want your new name to be Jane Doe James instead? That’s what I wanted to do — move my maiden name (or a shortened version of it) to be my middle name, replacing the middle name I was born with, and take my husband’s last name as my new last name. I thought this would be as easy as writing down what I wanted my post-married name to be, all at once, but it had to be treated as a separate name change — and that meant a lot more trips to name change court.

One way to cut down on the hassle is to start early. “If you plan to legally change your middle name, do it BEFORE you get married so you can put it on your marriage certificate,” said Chelsa Crowley, who also wanted to keep her maiden name as her middle name. This way, your marriage certificate, which becomes an official legal document, will list your new and correct name from the get-go — which becomes helpful for all the other things you’ll have to change.

The joy of being a one-named family? You get to inherit awesome knick-knacks, like this vintage sign we picked up from my in-laws.
The joy of being a one-named family? You get to inherit awesome knick-knacks, like this vintage sign we picked up from my in-laws.Meena Duerson

8. It’s not all about you.

If you’re requesting a name change after you’re married, like I did (i.e. changing your middle name), you may also be required to get a notarized form signed by your spouse acknowledging the change. This is a step you save if you change your middle name before you get married.

9. Prepare to go public.

It’s likely that your city will require that you advertise your name change in a local newspaper (to prevent against people changing their names to escape debt or commit fraud, for example). Once the clerk has signed off that you’ve brought in all the correct paperwork, you’ll go before a judge for a very quick session to confirm your request, and then you take your stamped forms to your local paper, where you pay a small fee to publish the announcement for a certain number of days. Once that’s done, you pick up the proof, return to name change court, and ta-da! You’re granted a new identity.

In addition to notifying your town, consider letting your loved ones know what you now go by. “You might want to send out an email about what your name is if you are changing it,” said Horn. “I would also suggest whatever you do, change across all platforms — change your email address, your Facebook name, your Instagram handle, etc. so it is uniform. It’s too confusing for your friends if it’s half and half!”

10. Sweat the details, or the change can cost you cash.

“Think long and hard about all the accounts and possible rewards you have in your current name before making the switch — credit cards for the most part are simple but airlines, that's another story,” said Crowley. “If you have a lot of points on an airline, make sure you get all the details (or use the points) before making the switch because they will make you jump through hoops to get your points transferred over to your new name.”

I wasn’t smart enough to do this at the time, but I wish I had made a spreadsheet to keep track of all the places I had changed my name — doctor’s offices, bank accounts, credit cards, frequent flier miles, utility bills, insurance, the gym, social media accounts, email accounts — and the places I still needed to. It’s been six years since I made the switch, and I still tried offering my maiden name at an appointment the other day, because I wasn’t sure how they had me on file.

At the end of the day, no matter what name is on my ID, I'm still me.
At the end of the day, no matter what name is on my ID, I'm still me.

11. It isn't actually that big of a deal.

I no longer stutter when I give my married name — in fact, it’s my maiden name that now looks unfamiliar. Ultimately, it's just a different set of initials and a different spot in the alphabet.

“When I finally changed my work email I remember it felt like taking a huge plunge — like jumping off a cliff,” said Wu. “But I survived, and nothing really changed. I am still me!”

You can follow Meena Hart Duerson on Twitter here — the one place she didn't have to change her identity.