Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: Last Names and Culture

Geek Culture

Save the date card commissioned from Matt Schubbe.

There are many differences between marriages in the United States and Canada. I explored some of these differences in an earlier post about the ceremony. The change of last name after marriage is another one of those differences.

In Canada, the rules around this are relatively simple. At least, in my mind. One of the reasons this post is so far overdue is that the United States has 50 states, each with their own rules about such things. In some states, the bride simply has to check a box when signing the marriage registry and her last name is changed. In other states, the bride has to notify difference agencies in order to change her last name. In only a handful of states, it is legal for the groom to take the bride’s name. I’m not even sure what the rules are in the states that allow same-sex marriage. Trying to research the rules in the United States surrounding this left me a little bit weary in the brain.

But, what I do know, or at least what I have been lead to believe, is that in the United States it is considered a legal name. In Canada, that is not the situation. Because of Canada’s views on multiculturalism, and there are many Canadians who come from countries where it is not the norm for the bride to assume the groom’s last name, the act of changing your last name is one of culture and not law.

When two people get married in Canada, either spouse is allowed to assume the last name of their partner. It doesn’t matter if it is a same-sex marriage or an opposite-sex marriage. But, that is all it is. It is a legal alias, one that can only be used if not intended for the purposes of fraud. In fact, up until recently, you had to have your spouse’s permission to use their last name on your passport. Of course, with the exception of Quebec, where you are not allowed to use your spouse’s last name for any reason whatsoever. Also, Quebec does not recognize common-law partnerships.

Some people decide to assume their spouse’s last name in the workplace and add the legal alias on their bank account, which requires proof of marriage, but keep their identification under their birth name because it is both expensive and time consuming to change these things. There are only a couple of provinces that do not charge to change identification after marriage.

Also, because Canada has common-law marriage laws, in some situations you don’t have to be legally married to assume your partner’s last name. Recently, passport laws have been changed to make it easier for both legally married partners and common-law partners to use each other’s last name on their passports. Spouses are no longer required to get permission for use of last name and common-law partners are now allowed to have a passport issued using their partner’s last name with a letter attesting to the fact they’ve been living in a marriage-like relationship for at least 12 months.

In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, they have a common-law marriage registry. If your common-law relationship is registered with the province, you are allowed to assume your partner’s last name for the purposes of a driver’s license, healthcare card, and other provincially issued identifications.

In all provinces except for Quebec and British Columbia, you are allowed to create a double-barrelled last name comprised of two parts, either hyphenated or not. Unlike some South American countries, it does not matter in which order the last names are places. In Quebec, there is no way around this law. In British Columbia, you have to undergo a legal change of name in order to use a double-barrelled last name.

The process in British Columbia is very simple. When I changed my first and middle names, it took less than two weeks for Vital Statistics to process the change, even though the website says four to six weeks. However, undergoing a legal change of name in Canada is not something you do lightly. If you do decide to legally change your name, for all intents and purposes, you are going through a rebirth. Your original birth records are destroyed and new ones are created in your new name. Then you are issued a new birth certificate, not an amended one, reflecting the new name.

I changed names because I’m a trans man, and for my marriage to be legal the officiant has to use the names on my birth certificate, and I couldn’t get married with a feminine first name. In this case, there aren’t too many ramifications involved in making this decision.

Because of how our name laws work, if you want to legally change your last name after marriage, one really needs to think about that. Why? Because in Canada, upon getting married, you can either use your last name at birth, assume your current spouse’s last name, or assume the last name from any other marriage. You are allowed to go back and forth between your legal name and any other alias at any time, as long as you are not intending to do fraud. This means that once I am married, there are three last names both Andrew and I are allowed to use, as we have both been previously married. But, if you go through the process of legally changing your last name, you cannot just simply go back to the last name with which you were born. If you got divorced and wanted to go back to your last name at birth, then you would have to once again go through the legal name change process, paying all of the fees involved, and spending a lot of time updating your identification, bank records, employment records, etc.

Even though it took less than two weeks for my legal name change to be processed way back in April, two months and hundreds of dollars later, I have only now received the last of my new identifications.

Many times when talking with my American pals about my name change and a handful of my Canadian pals who were unaware of our laws, they assumed that I was referring to changing my last name. I was actually changing my first and middle names, a process with laws no less conflicting between provinces. In British Columbia, it doesn’t require going to court, or placing adverts in the paper declaring intent because doing so places people in jeopardy. It really is as simple as filling out a form and having the Royal Canadian Mounted Police do a criminal record check so that any record that may exist will follow to the new name. Other provinces have different procedures, so confusion around all of these things is very understandable, especially from a cultural point of view.

In case you are curious, I will not be assuming Andrew’s last name after we are married. I’m very attached to my last name. Andrew has somewhat suggested that he would be willing to adopt my last name, but I think that would sound funny. Also, for those curious about what middle name I ended up choosing, I went with Coniah.

Still to come in this series over the next few months—I will finish the series after the wedding:

  • The location
  • Gifts
  • Things we’ve learned, and other miscellaneous things we did.

You can download all six previous posts in this series, in either PDF, ePUB, or MOBI, here. These parts include: Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: Introduction; Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: The Proposal and the Rings; Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: The Outfits and Wedding Attire; Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: The Wedding Party, Family, and Guests; Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: The Ceremony; and Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: The Reception.

If you would like to see a post about something not already mentioned, I want to know. Tell me, what has you curious? About what would you like to see me write? If you let me know, I will try my best to include it in a post.

Finally, if you are an American, what is the procedure for changing the last name in your state? Please let me know in what state you live. That would be very helpful. If you live outside of Canada and the United States, what are the laws where you live?

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8 thoughts on “Planning My Geeky-Queer Wedding: Last Names and Culture

  1. When I married in Iowa, both parties were asked on the form what they wanted their last names to be after the wedding. Very handy. I don’t think that’s changed since.

  2. When my husband changed his first and middle names in the 1990’s, it was a court process. Because his birth certificate can’t be changed, I am “domestic partner” to him, not wife, and can’t change my name.

  3. How different to within the UK. Here, we can call ourselves whatever we want to, just have to use that name, then if we want it to be official, just change our names by deed poll, to whatever we want to!

  4. In MA, it’s fairly simple. When we filled out our marriage license application, it asked for what names we wished to assume after the marriage. You can choose whatever new last names you want, even made-up ones. I had a friend whose last name was Kelley, her husband’s last name was Feeley, and the last name they both assumed was Keeley.

    After you get married, the marriage certificate is signed by the certificate and sent back to the town, and you receive the final certificate. Then you bring that to the social security office to change your name on your social security card. When you receive that after a couple of weeks, you bring it to the RMV to change your name on your driver’s license. Once you have that, you can change everything else, like passport, credit cards, bank accounts, PayPal, etc. Other than the passport, the whole thing cost me about $100.

    The exact same process will apply to my gay sister. We were both eager to get rid of the last name we were born with as our father was…a jerk, to put it nicely. I took my husband’s name, and my sister is taking our mother’s maiden name. Her wife is hyphenating that with the name she took with her first marriage, so they she retains a last name in common with her son.

    Whew! I think that’s everything! Let me know if you want follow-up on any of that.

    1. The only question I have is wanting clarification about who creates the marriage certificate.

      Here, whoever officiates the wedding sends the signed and witnesses marriage licence to Vital Statistics, and then Vital Statistics mails you the marriage certificate. Vital Statistics issues marriage licences. But, you can either purchase them through a government agency — such as Services BC in British Columbia — or a government approved retailer. In BC, that government approved retailer is London Drugs. Different provinces have different government approved retailers outside of their services office.

      So, if I am understanding correctly, there the town or county does it and not the state of MA?

      1. Your officiant signs it (that was one my typos) and the city/town approves it and mails you your official certificate. Each town adheres to the same state laws regarding marriage, so it doesn’t really matter what town does it. We got married it Boston, but we applied through our town of Stoneham because it’s smaller, with shorter waits.

        So in conclusion, your city or town creates the certificate, but the end result is a Massachusetts marriage certificate.

  5. I got married in Nebraska in 2000. There, you apply for a marriage license through the county, though it’s issued by the state department of vital records in a process similar to the one Sarah outlined for MA. Name changes aren’t addressed on the license itself, and there’s no form in my ID history explicitly spelling out that my name used to be X and I am changing it to Y. In fact, the only official document that has both of my names on it is the now-expired passport I held when I got married, which has an addendum in the back attesting to the changed name. To adopt my husband’s surname, I simply took the certified copy of the marriage license to the various agencies that issued ID (university registrar, DMV, Social Security office) and requested replacement identification with my new name. It’s a very ad hoc process, and I kept finding things for the next year or so where I hadn’t notified someone of my name change. The whole process didn’t cost anything beyond the fees for reissued IDs.

    A man I know changed his first and middle names, not related to a marriage; he tired of the assumptions people made about him based on the name his parents gave him, even though he only used it when it was legally unavoidable. His name change was a court procedure that required an advertisement in the paper (which he dreaded since it meant publicizing the name he had gone to lengths to ensure that people didn’t find out), a waiting period, and swearing before a judge that he wasn’t trying to evade anything. Plus, the whole thing cost about $500.

  6. I understand, to a degree, the need to keep track of people. But I think there are too many laws about who can marry whom and what they can call themselves. These things are too complicated and cost too much money. Two people who want to be together – that’s a fairly simple concept. Changing your name should be simple, too.

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