What Happens When Couples With Mash-up Names Divorce?

Breaking up is hard to do, especially if you created a new family name or took your spouse’s name when you got married.

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Creating a married name can cause extra problems if you divorce.
Creating a married name can cause extra problems if you divorce.

It was all very romantic. When Sharon Hoffman and Edan Eshel decided to get married, they decided not only to embrace a new life together, but a new name. The decisions were carefully considered. “I knew I didn’t want to take his name,” says Sharon, a real estate agent now living in Alameda, California. “I was 32 and it felt strange at that age to be joining someone’s family by taking their name.

"Edan didn’t want to change his name to a non-Hebrew name," she continues, "so my name was out. We knew we had to come up with something of our own. We wanted something nature-related, something that could be pronounced in any language, so we chose the name ‘Alva.’ Then we each took our former last name and turned it into our middle name. We didn’t want to hyphenate, but we wanted a new last name and to keep our old names.”

The plan seemed perfect, except for one thing: what would happen if they separated?

New options, new names

Back in the old days, the options when getting divorced were simple. A woman could keep her married name – and many did, particularly those who had achieved a degree of career recognition with their married name, or those who felt it important for their name to “match” their children’s.

The other option was to revert to their maiden name, a more natural choice for those in shorter marriages or those who hadn’t yet had children. But now, with women (and men) thinking outside the box when they wed by adding names, hyphenating names, or creating new ones, divorce can bring on a whole new kind of identity crisis – and a bureaucratic nightmare.

Today, Sharon and Edan are no longer together – but she has decided to remain Sharon Alva. She says she “can’t imagine” changing her name, and it keeps life simple, both professionally and when it comes to official forms.

Her ex is still an Alva as well – as is their son, Jordan. She thinks that keeping the chosen mutual name may be easier for women than keeping a family name that they ‘took.’ “I feel like the name never belonged to either me or to him [her ex],” says Sharon. “It belongs to us and to Jordan.”

The fact that the split was amicable plays a part, she believes. “I wonder if it might be different for people who had a contentious relationship and hated each other and did horrible things,” says Sharon.

“For me, the name represents all the years we spent together. We didn’t have a rancorous, horrible divorce – he will always be my co-parent and I think the name is a cohesive thing for our child. It tells him that even though we are separated, we act like a family around him, and part of that is that we have the same name.”

'Like a jewelry store'

Betsy Ami, from California, shares some of Sharon’s thinking. As someone who chose a new name with the interests of her future children at heart, Betsy – born Betsy Lynne Goldin – found it “inconceivable” that she would set her new name aside just because she and her wife divorced.

When they decided to get married, Betsy and her future wife couldn’t think of a decent way to combine their last names, Goldin and Keret. “We just couldn’t figure out how to bring those two together in a way that didn’t sound funny,” Betsy explains, laughing. “In English, Goldin-Keret would have sounded like a jewelry store.”

That lighthearted concern, however, came with a more serious one: How they could make life a bit more straightforward for the kids they knew they wanted to have together. “We thought it was extra important, since we were starting a lesbian family, to make it clear that our kids were always our kids,” she says.

When they divorced, Betsy decided she would keep “Ami.” “My family connection at this point is through my children and not through my spouse,” she says, “and I really wanted to keep that,” Betsy adds, explaining her decision to retain the new name.

For journalists and writers, marriage and divorce often mean changing bylines. Jordana Horn, who has written for a long list of major newspapers and is now a contributing editor to the Kveller website, added her first husband’s name when she married, using her maiden name as a middle name. After they divorced, she returned to being Jordana Horn.

The northern New Jersey resident recalls that, at the time of her divorce, she wanted “to disassociate as completely as I could. I can see where it would be different if you get divorced when your kids are 20 and you’ve lived most of your adult life with your soon-to-be-formerly-married name. But that wasn’t the case.”

When she remarried – to her current husband, Jon Gordon – she decided to retain “Jordana Horn” as her byline, but has added her second husband’s surname in her personal life.

Confusing the mailman

It feels right to her, although it can lead to confusion, especially in matters related to her five children and attendant bureaucracy. “My two boys have my ex-husband’s last name, and my three girls have my husband’s last name. It does bother me slightly.” But she keeps a sense of humor about it, joking that the one who really suffers is their mailman. “After we’d lived in our house for a month, he accosted me in the driveway and asked, ‘How many people live in this house, anyway?’”

Despite those headaches, she feels she made the right choice.“I think it would stink to be saddled with the name of someone you no longer love, much more than it does to have kids with different last names.”

Attorney Kathy Sher is a divorced single parent living in Oakland, California. She says she’s glad she never took her ex-husband’s name. “I would definitely recommend to new brides that they keep their name, even if they intend for the kids to have the father’s name,” she says. “For me, my name is an affirmation of who I am and where I come from. Although when I got divorced it did get more complicated, because I’m endlessly in situations where I’m the only parent, yet don’t have the same last name as my kids.”

Lissa Goldman, a doula and breast-feeding counselor living in Elkana, was married twice and changed her name twice. Now she is divorced twice. When she divorced for the second time, she decided to return to her maiden name, “even though that hadn’t been my name for 26 years.”

Her children suggested after the second divorce that she revert back to her first husband’s name. “That way, they said, we could all have the same name again. But I didn’t want to do it. I thought ‘Who do I want to know myself as?’ Going back was the most logical thing; I couldn’t identify with either of my ex-husbands’ names.”

All of the changes involved with changing name can be a bureaucratic nightmare, Goldman admits. “My identity card, my passports, the telephone company, the electric company. It never ends. Changing names even once is a hassle. From that perspective, it is definitely easier to stick with one name.”

Or no name at all. Recently, she laughs, she bought a new “Welcome” sign for her home, and, after considering her options, “didn’t put any name on it at all.”

Michael Mitchell contributed to this report.

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