Hyphenated last names — the practical stuff

Updated Feb 7 2020
A greenery filled Tanzanian-inspired Northern Michigan wedding
What name are ya gonna write in that guestbook, huh? Photo by Photos by Ciera
Dear Offbeat Bride:
I am looking for some fresh advice about name changes, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. I am torn between changing or hyphenating my name. I like the idea and political statement of hyphenated last names, but with two not-easily-spelled names, it just seems cruel to the world and future children.
But aside from the messiness of the name, I've also read some horror stories of hyphens being dropped when making travel arrangements, causing IDs and reservations not to match. Are these stories still true? Most of the articles I can find about this seem older, and I have a hard time believing society hasn't engineered its way out of the database issues. Do you have any insights?Mahalo,
Adrienne Something

Dear Adrienne:

Great question! We have a whole collection of posts on last names, and most of them are about feelings. Some of the feelings are about how it feels when you buck the trend by keeping your "maiden" name — or by taking your partner's name. It can go either way these days. Some of the feelings are about identity.

"A rose by any other name," Juliet said, "would smell as sweet…Deny thy father, and refuse thy name; or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet." Since that was quite a few centuries ago, we shouldn't be too surprised that society hasn't engineered its way out of the feelings.

But what about the practical issues? We asked around for some perspectives from brides who hyphenated their names, and those who kept their names and gave their kids hyphenated last names.

Here are some actual experiences they shared:

  • Even though we filled out the forms the same way every time, the kids' Social Security cards are all different. One has a hyphenated last name, one has a two-word last name, and one has a two-word middle name using one of the last names.
  • My fiancé and I decided to keep our names and hyphenate the kids. I've had so many people pull the "but what will your kids call their kids?!?" line. I would be super mad if someone told me what I had to do with my name, so why would I make that decision for my (currently theoretical) kids who may or may not even want children. Cart before horse much?
  • Our hyphenated kids have had to deal with extra paperwork at school, summer camp, FAFSA, and draft registration. We figure these experiences have given them the ability to stand up to difficult situations and stay calm in (apparent) crises.
  • We decided he would change his name — but it turns out it's not as easy for a guy to change his name. It's a legal procedure involving paperwork and fees.
  • I most definitely never thought that by changing my surname I'd somehow bow down to some ancient patriarchal female-squelching thing. For me, it was about being totally, utterly lazy. LAZY! I am a dual citizen, so 2 passports, 2 driving licenses, bank accounts in 2 countries, different government ID numbers, etc, etc, etc… I just couldn't bear the thought of changing any of that stuff.
  • I really hate my hyphenated last name. It's tedious when filling out forms, people have a really hard time remembering it and when I have to give my name for one reason or another, many folks take the liberty of knocking one of the names off. This means that if I go to the pharmacy, the dentist or the doctor, there are at least three possible names my file could be under. Sometimes I have several files under several names at one location. My parents decided this for me, but I will not be deciding this for my children.
  • My fiance was born with two unhyphenated last names. It's been horrible for him. All of his major forms of ID (birth certificate, SS card, passport) have different versions. All 1 word, hyphenated, space, 2nd one gone entirely, etc. Which makes it EXTREMELY difficult when trying to identify himself for things like boarding airplanes or getting PO boxes or ID cards.
  • I have a hyphenated last name and I LOVE IT!!! I didn't want to give up my last name, my husband didn't want to give up his, but we also wanted to take each other's names. So we settled with hyphenating. It's fantastic too because our daughter now has our hyphenated last name and I just love it. Could I mention any more that I really love my last names? lol
  • I have a hyphenated last name from birth, and it is an enormous pain in my ass. Maybe it's my own fault, but my records from different places (school, work, medical, taxes…) don't match and it always creates problems for me.
  • I was born with a hyphenated last name and it would never fit the boxes I had to fill in at school when I took tests. I always ran out of space. I kept my name when I married, but our kids have my husband's last name.

Do the possible pitfalls make your decision easier? Or maybe they help you realize that your feelings are strong enough to make you willing to overcome the problems? Or, since there are so many different experiences, you might just realize that it's impossible to predict what's going to happen.

Make hyphenated last names easier

It depends on the names.

Don't focus only on the hyphen. Mr. and Mrs. Smith-Jones will have an easier time than Mr. and Mrs. Souvanakhett-Reissinger. If your names are long, uncommon in the place where you live, and have multiple possible spellings, then your hyphenated name is going to cause you some trouble. That's okay if it's a matter of principle, but you have to be realistic when you decide whether you're willing to cope with complications.

Be consistent.

Plenty of people use one name socially and another name professionally. However, if you use one name for your voter registration and another for your library card and yet another for your taxes, you might find things complicated. As much as possible, use one name for all your official forms. Traditionally, a woman can always use Mrs. Hisname, no matter what name she uses for herself. So a mom whose kids use her husband's last name is completely correct calling herself Mrs. Hisname at the children's school. Two women could each use Mrs. Partner's name. Men don't have a tradition of this kind, so you can make up your own! Just stick to your legal name on forms.

Check local laws.

Various states have varying laws about names. In most states, women can easily change their names when they get married, but there are usually some actions required. The same is true for men in some states — but definitely fewer. A man is more likely to have to go through the whole legal process of changing his name, even though he's getting married. At least one state requires children to be given their father's surname unless they take legal action. Find out what your local laws are before you make your decision. Make sure you're willing to go to the amount of trouble required.

However it works out, we wish you all the best!

  1. My H2B and I have this talk a lot. He has no qualms about changing his last name, but does not want to take mine (which I'm cool with and understand). I don't want to swap out my last name at all due to my attachment to it from the death of a parent. To make it a little more complicated, we come from different cultural backgrounds and our last names clearly reflect that – we both have traditional names in that sense, and both are equally hard to pronounce for those not used to them, so hyphenation would be a tongue twister for every telemarketer.
    We're sticking with our individual last names – for now. But, we have come across an additional risk though I want to point out for support of hyphenation: after showing identification to see one another in professional and medical circumstances, we're doubted as spouses if the other person is not immediately present. Cultural expectations mean that we have to go that extra mile to "prove" we're married. So far it hasn't been too bad, but we worry about emergencies and having to push to be able to see one another in medical or civil events if the other party isn't able to vouch. Hyphenation may help address that.

    • I never changed my name but did get wallet sized marriage licenses from the state that both of us carried at all times. Never needed it but it was a good back up for the medical/legal situation. I think they were an extra $10-$15 when I ordered copies of our license.

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