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After divorce, a new name symbolizes a new life

Some American women choose to invent entirely new surnames when their marriages end.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 2008



During Meg Bertini's divorce in 2002, she faced a dilemma. She did not want to keep her married name, but she wasn't eager to revert to her maiden name, either.

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"It was 'heavy' and just didn't reflect who I was any longer," says Ms. Bertini, president of DreamTime Publishing in Las Vegas.

She solved the problem by making up her surname of Bertini. She created it by using the last part of her father's first name, RoBERT, then adding INI at the end in a nod to her mother's Italian heritage.

"Generally I tell people it's family-derived from my mother's side, and that tends to work," she says. "I just shrug off the jokes that I must be in the witness protection program to change my name in that way."

When couples undo their "I do's" and go their separate ways, women who took their husband's name when they married may find themselves with complex decisions to make. These involve children, parents, careers, and a sense of identity.

"Most of the time women with children like to keep their married name so it's consistent with their children," says Sharon Sooho, a family law attorney in Newton, Mass., and a partner with Divorce.net. "Some women, even without children, prefer to keep their married name because it sounds better, or it's the name they use professionally." A few add a new last name and use their previous last name as a middle name.

Those who, like Bertini, want to start fresh have many options. But they can also face obstacles.

Diane Dobry, marketing director at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York, divorced recently after 28 years of marriage. She had just started a wine import business based on her maternal grandmother's maiden name. The family came from Hungary, as does the wine.

"I was planning to change my last name to Kristof, to match my new company name so I could say, 'Diane Kristof, president of Kristof Wines,' " Ms. Dobry explains. "But someone told me it might not be a good idea because of possible problems relating to trying to collect on my ex-husband's benefits if I do not remarry. If I change my name, it might be difficult to prove that I did not remarry, since it is not my maiden name." She is researching the issue.

Making a name change legal at the time of a divorce is easiest when it involves taking back a birth name or a previous married name.

"When you divorce, the decree normally gives you permission to resume using your premarital name," says Brette McWhorter Sember of Clarence, N.Y., a former divorce attorney. "If you want to choose another name, you have to go through a legal name-change process. It generally requires that you file a petition with the court explaining why you want the change. Then you have to publish a notice of the change in a newspaper of record chosen by the court so that creditors and other interested parties are notified. Then the change is finalized."

Filing fees vary by county. Linda Trott, a name-change researcher in Anaheim, Calif., has seen them range from under $100 to $700.

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