How Can I Drop My Married Name If I Am a Widow?

By Teo Spengler

Updated November 25, 2019

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If a marriage ends in a dissolution action, a spouse who changed her last name is offered a shortcut to change her name back as part of the divorce decree. But when a marriage ends in the death of a spouse, there is no such shortcut. So, if a widow wants to take back her maiden name, she has to jump through all the legal hoops built into the name change process in her state.

Legal Name Change

Each state offers residents a procedure to complete a legal name change and the process varies from state to state. Generally a person must file a legal name change to use her prior last name on a passport, a driver's license or other legal documents. Once she wades through the steps of the legal name change procedure, she can even get the name change decree attached to her birth certificate in some states.

The legal procedure is more cumbersome than it seems it should be and usually involves repeated publication of notice of the name change. That's because lawmakers are concerned that people might change their names in order to evade creditors or disassociate themselves from a criminal past.

Name Change After Death of Spouse

While many couples prefer to share the same last name, it is by no means required. There is no law in any state requiring someone to take the last name of her marriage partner. But a spouse who chooses to take her spouse's name on marriage might want to switch back to her own last name after he dies.

Given how easy the law makes it to change a last name in a marriage or a divorce proceeding, it seems there also should be a simplified procedure for a widow's name change after her husband dies. But there isn't.

That means she will need to learn about her state's name change procedure. It usually starts with filling out and filing three forms: a petition for name change, an order to show cause for change of name and a decree changing the name. The court will charge a filing fee for starting the name change action.

Procedure for Name Change

Name changes for minor children after a divorce tend to be emotionally charged proceedings. The parent seeking the name change can meet with strong opposition from the other parent, and both often need to hire attorneys.

However, when a widow wishes to swap her married name for her birth name, the petition is very likely to be unopposed. She will have to pay the court filing fee, but there is no reason to bring an attorney into the proceedings. The papers are quite simple and straightforward to fill out.

Publishing the Order to Show Cause

Once the petition is filed, the petitioner must arrange to publicize the name change. In California, for example, the Order to Show Cause must be published in a newspaper of general circulation once a week for four weeks.

This repeated publication is intended to provide notice to creditors to prevent debtors from creating a new name and identity in order to escape debts. Once the publication period is completed, the newspaper will provide proof of publication that should be filed with the court.

Court Hearing on Petition

The court may or may not require the petitioner to attend a hearing on her name change application. If a hearing is noticed, she should attend in person on the day and time set. The judge may ask a few questions, but assuming all is in order, will sign the decree granting the name change.

Generally, if nobody has filed objections to the petition, the court simply grants the Decree Granting Name Change without requiring a hearing. It may mail a copy to the petitioner or she may retrieve the signed copy directly from the court. It is useful for the petitioner to obtain a few certified copies since she will need them to officially change her name on her passport, driver's license and Social Security card.