Everything You Need to Know About Hyphenating Your Last Name

Hyphenated Last Name

PHOTO BY SAMM BLAKE

Making big decisions is an essential part of wedding planning, from picking your flowers to finalizing your guest list. However, few (if any) of these will be carried with you for the rest of your life. One that will? Deciding to keep or change your last name—and the time to think about your surname is well before the ceremony.

What Is a Hyphenated Last Name?

A hyphenated last name is when you and your spouse combine both of your last names with a hyphen. This is also called a double surname.

In many states, when you fill out your application for your marriage license, you’ll be writing your intended married name on that application. It becomes a legal document after the marriage when the officiant files it. You might want to keep the name you have, but if you are changing your name, you have options:

  • Take your spouse’s last name or move your last name to use as your middle name and add your spouse’s name. 
  • Create a new last name by combining both surnames.
  • Take a completely new surname.
  • Hyphenate your name, or both of you can hyphenate your names.

Here, we're exploring the last option, hyphenating your last name, with help from expert Valerie Freeman.

Meet the Expert

Valerie Freeman is the founder of Betty Lu Paperie and a member of The Cultivated Creative and Stationer's Summit. She completed Design House Prep School's Wedding Etiquette study and has seven years of experience as a wedding stationer.

Why People Hyphenate Their Last Names

In Britain, hyphenated double surnames were historically passed down to heirs. They commemorated the combining of family fortunes and affiliations by marriage. When there were no male heirs to the estate in the bride's line, the name could be used by the husband, usually done if he was from a family less well-off than the bride's family. This practice began in the 15th century and was limited to nobility or those of great wealth.

In Victorian times, the hyphenated, or what is also called the double-barreled surname, became more popular and gradually the practice has moved from upper-crust Brits to anyone. In modern-day America and much of the English-speaking western world, the choice to hyphenate has less to do with the bourgeoise as it is a declaration of equality. 

"Hyphenating your last name may also be a sentimental choice," says Freeman. "Many couples with more conservative upbringings may not be keen on the idea. But think of it this way: hyphenating both partners' last names can be incredibly meaningful for a woman whose traditional family has no sons to carry on their last name."

How to Hyphenate Your Last Name

You may choose to hyphenate your name no matter which gender you identify with or whom you are marrying, as no law or rule prevents you from doing so. For example, both Mary White and Lauren Holland will hyphenate their names when they wed. Mary could change her name to Mary White-Holland or Mary Holland-White, and Lauren's name would change similarly. The only decision is which surname sounds better before the hyphen and which should come after.

The Pros and Cons of Hyphenating

If you're debating whether or not to hyphenate your last name, considering these pros and cons may help:

Pros

  • The best of both: You don't have to give up your birth name, just add your partner's name to it.
  • Professional identity: Hyphenation would be a practical way to keep your name recognition.
  • Easier ancestry: Genealogists will appreciate that your lineage is still traceable.
  • Preventing the extinction of a name: If you have children together, your surname will carry on for at least another generation.
  • Online forms: Some legal and administrative forms for databases won't allow a space between two last names but will recognize a hyphenated name.   

Cons

  • They can be lengthy: Make sure you consider how long your name will be when joined together via a hyphen.
  • Occasional confusion: Some people ignore hyphens and have no clue as to whether your last name is the name before the hyphen, the whole two names, or the last name of the two.

Tips for Hyphenating Your Last Name

If you decide that hyphenating your last name is the right choice for you, here are some tips to be aware of:

Pay close attention to your marriage license application.

Some states require you to write your new hyphenated name on your marriage license application. This application becomes the legal marriage document after the wedding. If you don't get this right, you may have to spend time and money petitioning the courts for a legal name change after the marriage.

Update your name change on all legal documents.

You have to change bank accounts, credit cards, insurance policies, medical coverage, driver's licenses, loans, property, car and boat registration, identification cards, legal documents, agencies and organizations, passport, and Social Security card—among others. You can do some of the changes before the wedding, but many require a certified copy of your recorded marriage license which you’ll only have after the wedding.

If you are leaving for a honeymoon, the name on your ticket must match your current identification and/or passport. For questions regarding your new last name, make sure to inquire with airlines and cruise ships, the marriage bureau, TSA, and U.S. Immigration before you depart.

You may have to educate people on your correct last name.

Some people ignore hyphens. If they use one name or the other, offer a polite correction and a warm smile. If your children are using your new name, check-in with their school teachers, dentist and doctor's offices, etc. to make sure everyone has the names correctly noted in their files.

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