My wife, daughter, and I changed our last name last year. We changed it from Watermolen to West. I hadn’t been blogging on Eden Journal for a while, so I didn’t make any sort of announcement here. I’m planning to fire up the engines on Eden Journal and start writing here again, and my name change seems like a good place to start.
My family has gone through a number of changes over the past couple years, and I didn’t feel that Eden Journal was the right place to chronicle these changes at the time. Now that we are through our own phase of personal growth, I can get back to focusing on helping you with yours.
A Brief History of the Surname
The concept of the family name, or surname, has a long and winding history with different cultures and countries approaching it in different ways. In England, the surname came into being around the 9th century and began amongst the feudal lords and aristoracy. Presumably as a way to keep track of who is nobility and who is not. From there the practice of taking a surname slowly spread amongst the rest of the popluation. Hereditary surnames, that is names that pass down from the father, gained popularity in the 13th and 14th century.
In England and cultures derived from there, we have seen a long history of women taking the husbands surname upon marraige. This practice is still fairly standard, but over the last century the number of women keeping their birth name has been on the rise. In 1979, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (“CEDAW”) which declared in effect that women and men, and specifically wife and husband, shall have the same rights to choose a “family name”, as well as a “profession” and an “occupation”.
Today we typically pass down the family name to our children at birth. Women have the choice to take the husband’s name at marraige or to keep her birth name. Beyond those cases we also have the right to change our family name.
Disattisfaction with our Last Name
In our case, I had never really been happy with my last name, Watermolen. As a child I was often teased with the oh-so-clever anagram of a similar sounding fruit. One might think that this stops in adulthood, but sadly it does not. As an adult I also often got the “I bet you were teased as a kid” comments. Yes, yes I was, thank you for reminding me. Funny story, my wife also got that comment a lot, to which she’d have to explain that this was her married name and therefore had a different last name in childhood.
Teasing aside, another issue was spelling the name EVERY TIME I had to give it to someone. Doctor, dentist, hotel, travel agent, or anyone else that needed my name. Enunciating clearly, “Wa-ter-mo-len” followed by the spelling, “that’s W-A-T-E-R-M-O-L-E-N.” This was often repeated a second time when they didn’t quite get it the first time.
The thing is, however minor or major these frustrations may be, we weren’t stuck with that name. We have the power and the ability to change it. Even though we have the power and ability, there is a strong societal influence for men to keep the family name that was handed down at birth. Because of this, the impetus to take action is greater than it maybe should be.
Our Name Change Saga
In July of 2012 we took a ten hour road trip from Florida to North Carolina. That ten hour drive makes for a lot of time to talk. My wife and I were happily chatting away when one of us mentioned the idea of changing our last name. Our last name is often misspelled, often mispronounced, and is easily mocked and made fun of. She asked, “Would you do it?”
For her, it was an easier decision as she had already changed her last name when we were married. For a man to change his name is a bigger deal. It seems silly that it’s a big deal, but there is a long history of the man’s name being passed on to his sons. Maybe at some point in history this passing on of the family name served a purpose, but in today’s world it doesn’t. I pondered her question very briefly and said, “Yes, I would be willing to change our last name.”
We ignored all the details of how to do it and immediately began trying on new last names. A road trip turned out to be a good time to do this. We took words and names from every sign we passed on the interstate and tried them out as last names. We laughed at some of the crazy names we came up with, with names like “Horsestamp” from a street sign and “Ogeechee” from a river. Along the way we even found a few solid contenders. Names like Best from a Best Western sign and Apple from an Applebee’s sign.
The name change stayed on our mind for the entire week we were on vacation. When we returned home I started to do some research to see what actually went into changing our name. I found that we needed to fill out a form, turn it in at the courthouse, pay a fee, get fingerprinted for a background check, and have a hearing in front of a judge.
A Mountain of Paperwork
It sounded like a lot to do, but not so much that it would deter us. I had trouble finding the right form at first. Most websites that direct you to name change forms point you to the form for a single person to change a name. We needed to change the name for our whole family. I didn’t realize this until I printed out a couple of the wrong forms. (For reference, anyone changing a family name in Florida can use Form 12.982(f).
I finally got the right form printed out and then we stalled. The form was long and needed lots of dates and addresses that we’d have to search for. The effort required to fill out the form along with the overwhelm of all the stuff that came after the form and some lingering doubt and fear caused us to do nothing for the next six months.
Finally in December of 2012 I abated all my fears and doubts and sat down to fill out the form. I got a lot of it filled out, but got stuck on a few items. The form asked for the dates and addresses of every place we had lived SINCE BIRTH. Wow… I had no clue where to find those things. More overwhelm creeped in and caused another month of inaction.
In January of 2013 I was determined to get off my lazy butt and figure this out. We were able to get one of our past addresses from our credit report. This was a free report from AnnualCreditReport.com. It was missing the apartment number, but I ended up remembering it. We did a Google map of our first apartment and found the address, but again lacked the apartment number. We decided to move ahead without the apartment number and hoped it wouldn’t matter.
We got stuck on our second apartment and couldn’t find the address anywhere. We were only in this apartment for one year, and that was about 13 years ago so we couldn’t even remember the exact location of our building. We left it blank and moved on.
We also needed to list every place we had worked, including address and phone number for the past ten years. This wasn’t too bad, but I had to do a little digging to find the addresses and phone numbers.
As we were looking through the additional documents we’d need to bring (marriage license and birth certificates) we found our first apartment address, including apartment number, on our marriage license. Then we found some more documents with our other addresses. Finally we were able to complete the paperwork.
Then the Legwork
The next step was a trip to the courthouse to file the paperwork and pay the fee. We went to the clerk of the court for family matters. They told us that we had to see the family case manager’s office first for them to review the paperwork. We headed down the hall and saw the family case manager. She asked us to make a couple of changes to the form and then notarized it.
From there it was back to the clerk of the court to file the paperwork and pay the $400 fee. The next step was to get fingerprinted for background checks. It was getting near the end of the workday, so we did the fingerprints the following week. We were trying to get this done on my days off, so that dictated the timing on some of these things.
After getting fingerprinted we had to wait for them to be processed and reported to the clerk of the court. We didn’t hear anything for three weeks, and then a letter arrived that said they still needed our fingerprints. I made a couple of phone calls and found that my fingerprint and background check was missing, that the fingerprint office had indeed sent them in, and that the clerk of the court finally found them.
The next letter I received was one saying they needed our daughter’s birth certificate. Too bad they hadn’t mentioned that in the first letter as we could have saved some time. I made a copy and mailed it in. I also made a copy of our marriage license and stuffed that in the envelope too, just in case they needed it and were planning to send another letter.
Finally after another week and a half we got a letter announcing our court date. It was about three weeks out, and my wife and I both requested time off for the court hearing.
The Court Hearing
The court date was set for April 3, 2013 and we were instructed to arrive 7:30am with an 8am court time. There were a few people waiting outside the courtroom when we arrived and several more arrived soon after. We discovered that this court was for name changes and uncontested divorces. Most of the people waiting were there for divorce.
It made for an interesting morning of people watching, seeing the dynamics of couples that no longer wanted to be together. I felt a little sad for all the marriages that didn’t work out. I decided that I should try to feel happy despite the gloom, because the bright side of things was that these people could soon move on with their lives.
Everyone was called in as a group around 8:15, and we were given instructions on how to act in the courtroom. He also said we needed to be prepared with a valid reason for the divorce or name change. I found it very interesting that in the case of divorce “irreconcilable differences” is not a valid reason, nor is “we are not in love anymore.” He gave a couple of good reasons as being infidelity or living separately for an extended period of time. He didn’t give any advice on name changes and I got a little worried as I tried to think of valid reasons.
We all filed out of the courtroom and the judge began calling individual cases. There were three divorce cases before us and we were finally called in around 9:00. It turned out my worry about a valid excuse for name change was unwarranted, as the judge said, “I can see why you’d want to change your name, so I’m not even going to ask why.” The judge was very friendly and made the experience very pleasant.
He approved our name change and mentioned that was his first approval of the day. Apparently the divorces that went before us were declined. I had no idea it was so hard to divorce.
We happily made our way to the clerk of the court to pick up our final judgment.
We are now officially the “West” family.
Post Name Change
The next step was to change our name EVERYWHERE. The judge told us that we needed to change our driver’s license within ten days, so we headed to the driver’s license office next. It turns out that you actually need to update your social security card before you update your driver’s license.
After changing it at the social security office we had to wait 48 hours for it to get updated in the computer system and then we could change our driver’s licenses.
Next up was we changing it everywhere else. At work, landlord, utilities, insurance, cell phones, school, Facebook, email accounts, and nearly a million other places.
Reactions of Family and Friends
Reactions to our name change have been mixed, but predominantly positive. My family was a bit shocked, as can be expected. My wife’s family had a great time joking about it and suggesting alternative ridiculous and hilarious names. Friends were a mixed bag. I had one friend that said he understood why we would change it but that it was a “slap in the face” to my family. Other friends were fully positive and supportive. None were completely negative.
One comment we received was that selecting a new last name is “a beautiful expression of creating your own family.” I like how that sounds. My wife, daughter, and I are still a part of families on both side. The name change is a nice expression of our nuclear family, our dedication to each other, and our ability to make decisions and take action on things that will improve our life.
For anyone out there that is thinking about doing this, I’m here to tell you that it can be done, and it can be done without hiring an expensive lawyer. During the process I started hearing from friends that had stories of someone they knew changing their last names. I had never known anyone that had done it so the additional stories were reassuring, and I hope our story is reassuring to you.