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Ex-Etiquette: Remarriage raises issue of surname

Q: When I divorced 10 years ago, I kept my married name because we had two children and I wanted to have the same last name as my kids as they grew up. I’m going to remarry next month, and I’d like to continue to use my ex-husband’s name, even though my children are now 15 and 17. My fiancé has kids of his own and completely understands my decision. So does most of my extended family. It’s my 85-year-old grandmother, whom I see about two or three times a year, who’s adamantly opposed and has told me in no uncertain terms that she will refer to me by my new married name because that’s the way it is supposed to be. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A: You’ve actually posed a couple of ex-etiquette questions: first, whether to keep your ex-husband’s name once you remarry, and second, the proper ex-etiquette associated with dealing with someone who will not abide by your wishes.

Let’s start with your decision to keep your ex’s surname: Although I understand why you refer to it as your ex’s name, it’s the name you’ve gone by for almost 20 years and your children’s last name. It’s certainly understandable that you would like to keep it, particularly if your children are still minors. In all fairness, however, not everyone feels that way – and that’s fine, too. According to good ex-etiquette, it’s your decision what name you will go by. Kudos to your fiancé for understanding your choice.

Truth is, a name change isn’t the dilemma it once was. Many divorced moms opt to keep the same surname as their children and then don’t change it when they remarry. Some mothers – and now fathers, as well – hyphenate their last name when they marry. That’s a possibility you may want to consider. Those who do not marry and have children often hyphenate the child’s last name. Mom’s last name is Smith. Dad’s last name is Jones. The child’s last name is Smith-Jones.

Now let’s tackle grandma’s attitude: Legally, the changing of a last name is more often determined by custom rather than law. Although traditions and statutes have changed over time regarding a woman changing her last name when getting married, no current law requires a name change in the United States or even in countries such as Britain, Canada or Australia. Make sure that grandma knows that. If she’s adamant about this, it’s doubtful you can change her 85-year-old mind. You can be polite, as good ex-etiquette always suggests, inform her of your decision to continue to go by the same last name as your children – and ask her to continue to refer to you as such. (Ex-Etiquette for Parents Rule No. 8, “Be honest and straightforward.”) But, in this case, if grandma refuses, don’t push it. You see her so rarely, and you don’t want to spend your last years together arguing about the principle of the thing. If this were a familywide problem, I would say it’s important to set your boundaries early and stick to them. But in this case, choose your battles. That’s good ex-etiquette.

Jann Blackstone, Ph.D., is the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. Email her at dr.jann@exetiquette.com.