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Getting Back Your Former Name After Divorce Can Be Easy

Cynthia M. Fox

The actress born Edna Rae Gilhooley went through a bunch of family, step-family and stage names before assuming the last name of her third husband and becoming once and for all Ellen Burstyn. I was fascinated to hear her on the radio recently talking about her life, various names and new autobiography, "Lessons in Becoming Myself."

What an apt title, I thought, not just for her life but many women's, including my own, when it comes to our names.

Any of us-male or female-can go to court and legally change our names at just about any time to just about anything we choose. Missouri, for instance, bars only name changes designed to defraud creditors.

Marriage and divorce, though, present women with some unique name dilemmas. When we marry, we can either keep the last name we have or just start using a husband's, no lawyer or legal work required. When we divorce we can, if we want, get a former name back.

In my experience, most divorcing women decide to keep their married names. For many it's simply a matter of not wanting a name different from their children's. That was some of my thinking when I divorced many years ago. Not only did I want to keep the same surname as my only child, I saw no sense in giving up the name that had defined me professionally for 20 years. So I kept my ex's, a name I had been using since we married.

As I knew, a mere check on a box of the divorce judgment form would have sufficed to change it then. Just a stroke of the pen and no increase in my attorney's bill! Free and easy would have done it.

It still can. I make a point of pointing out to any women divorce client this simple, check-off way of changing her name available to her as part of any settlement. Another beauty of it is that the new name is totally her choice, not subject to negotiation with her husband. The only limitation is that, at divorce, she can change only to a name she has had previously.

I've known women to pass up this no-hassle chance to change their names when they divorce only to change their minds, return and ask me to do it for them later. And then they have to do it the usual way-- petitioning the court, publishing a notice four weeks running in a general circulation newspaper and paying me for the time it takes to do all that.

I'm happy to help, of course. Names are so personal that I have no rule about when-or if-women should change them. I just want my clients to be clear about their options and comfortable with the names, which I hope reflect their best sense of who they are and want to be. When I remarried 13 years ago, the name that did that for me was "Fox". Because we wanted to make a public statement of commitment to each other, my husband and I decided we should have the same last name. But which one? He certainly didn't want to assume my ex's name, but he was willing to take my maiden name if I wished to resume it. But I didn't.

So Fox was the default solution. It was also the easiest. I just added it to my letterhead and telephone listing. Because it's short and simple, it has since proved a time saver. I spend fewer minutes signing documents, and I don't have to spell or pronounce it for anyone-a claim Ellen can't make for Burstyn.

For over 25 years Cynthia M. Fox has focused her practice in family law, with a particular emphasis on matters relating to the dissolution of marriage: divorce representation and mediation, child custody and child support. She is a native St. Louis and a graduate of the Washington University School of Law, Class of '73.

Cynthia M. Fox can be contacted by phone at (314)727-4880 or
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