The Smart Path to Crafting Your New Identity after Divorce

January 19, 2021

There are few things as core to your identity as your name. If you’re a woman, you may have to make the call on what you’re going to do with your name post-divorce. If you took on your spouse’s last name or merely added it to your own, what will you now do with this remnant of your past life?

If you’re thoughtful, you can use the one decision that’s completely in your hands as the starting point of crafting your new identity after divorce – and do it in a way that honors your authentic emotional self while best positioning you for your next chapter.

Ask Yourself These Seven Questions to Choose Your Right Path

Your legal name is tangled up in a web of complex issues. There are both emotional and practical considerations that you should consider. Gain clarity on the issue by asking yourself these seven questions to make your decision:

1. How closely tied up is your sense of identity with your last name?

Consider the ties, the recognition, and even the professional reputation you may be giving up along with your married name. Is the change worth it to you?

2. How do you feel about your marriage?

If mentioning your married last name triggers negative feelings, starting over with a new name may well be worth the cost to gain fresh, positive feelings about yourself and your future life.

3. How do you feel about having a different last name than those of your kids?

Will you feel more connected to your children and more easily able to make the transition if you can keep at least this one thing unchanged? Then, by all means, consider keeping your married name.

4. How important is your name to your professional reputation and future livelihood?

Have you worked hard for years to earn the professional reputation that will help you build your financial future? If you risk losing recognition and future income by changing your last name, consider retaining it to preserve your income prospects and financial security.

5. Do you have the bandwidth to go through the formalities and hassle of making the name change?

If you have the bandwidth or don’t mind paying a small fee to take care of the formalities, a new name may be well worth the price

6. Is remarriage on the horizon?

Are you reconsidering marriage in the future? If so, what would you want to do with your name then – both if you change your name now and if you don’t? By giving some thought to the future, you’ll be clearer on the ramifications if and when you decide to tie the knot with the right person in the future.

7. Is your spouse making your post-divorce name a negotiation issue?

A court won’t and can’t force you to change your name against your will. However, your divorcing spouse may think it important enough to make it an item in the divorce negotiation. Think through carefully if you’re willing to give up valuable negotiating chips before you decide on your position.

How to Make Your Changed Identity a Reality

If you do decide to start your next chapter with a new name. What do you do next?

There are two main sets of actions you need to take:

1. Making the court-recognized change

In most states, you can start with a court document that is usually your final divorce decree or your initial petition for dissolution for marriage. Be sure to include language to specifically request the name change back to your birth name in your documents.

2. Updating Your New Name Where it Matters

It’s not enough to just have the courts recognize your name change – it’s critically important to reflect that change in the areas that have big impacts for your future. To help you prioritize, we categorized these into tiers, so you ensure you take care of the big ones first:

Tier 1: Critical legal status items

    • Social Security card
    • Driver’s License / State ID
    • Passport

Tier 2: Financially impactful items

    • Bank and financial accounts
    • Wills/Trusts/estate planning documents
    • Mortgages / Deeds
    • Insurance policies
    • State tax authority (IRS will be notified through the SSA)
    • Vehicle registration and title

Tier 3: Other necessary changes

    • Credit Cards
    • Debts
    • School/work payroll/benefits, including company retirement plans
    • Utilities
    • Voter registration
    • Loyalty or points programs
    • Children’s school

Now back to you. What path will best serve your future goals and aspirations? What will you name your future?

Jenny Chung, CFP® is a Wealth Manager at BDF. She uses her background as a teacher to help individuals and families understand their investments and financial plans. She also works on the firm’s Divorce Practice Group which helps divorcing individuals navigate through the process. Jenny earned a master’s degree from the University of Illinois and has over 20 years of experience working in financial services.