When I got married in May, I had long since decided to keep the name I’ve had since birth. My name was already attached to higher degrees, as well as publications and teaching records. More importantly, my last name is an integral part of my identity that connects me to my family’s Quebecois roots.
My husband supported my decision, but as many women have discovered before me, a number of family and friends objected. Some of my fellow Mormons objected to my decision on the grounds that the Church’s software program automatically changes a woman’s last name when she marries. Church policy explicitly states that a husband and wife do not need to share the same last name, a policy that reflects varied cultural practices in an international membership. Yet some members, including ward clerks, mistake the Church’s practice of automatically changing a bride’s name as evidence that doctrine requires her to take her husband’s name.
While some Mormon women were surprised to see their names change without their permission, I knew what to expect. I was confident that if I simply spoke to the right person beforehand, Church records would maintain my legal name. Despite the full support of my local leaders, I logged onto lds.org a week after my wedding and found that my legal name was now recorded as Emily Ashcroft. Correcting the record took nearly two months, and along the way I learned two things: that automatically changing women’s names is hurting many faithful sisters, and what steps a newly wed couple needs to take in order to ensure correct records.
We Are Hurting
Since my local leaders were unsure how to correct the problem, I turned to other women in multi-name families. Most had encountered ward clerks who did not know how to correct their records, but some had faced worse experiences. In several cases well-meaning temple workers had crossed out a woman’s legal name on her recommend and replaced it with her husband’s name. In a few cases, clerks refused to update a woman’s records without the approval of her husband. Even women who had successfully updated their personal records were still listed under their husband’s name in the ward directory, rendering them nearly invisible.
On one point, these women and I were unanimous: seeing our names automatically change hurt. We didn’t show this pain while serving in a calling or giving a talk in sacrament meeting, but seeing our records change without our permission had left us feeling less valued than our husbands. Seeing our last names disappear from our ward directories made us feel invisible and seemed to communicate that our voices did not matter – We certainly did not feel heard and understood. Like others who have discussed this problem, I hope the appropriate programmers change the software program that is hurting women. In the mean time, here is my advice to other women who find themselves in this position:
How to Correct Records
If you intend to get married in the temple and keep your name, there is nothing you can do to prevent your record from being changed, as MLS (the system the church uses for electronically recording membership information) currently stands. Know this in advance so that you do not waste any effort on that front. Because the system automatically makes this change, your local clerk will be powerless to stop it from happening. What your clerk can and should do, however, is correct the information when you ask him to. Unfortunately, not all clerks understand how to make this correction, so you may need to be patient and persistent. The following tips can help.
- Understand how household records are organized. When a couple gets married, MLS doesn’t just change the wife’s name; it transfers her membership record into her husband’s household. That means his name, his ward, and any other information listed under “household” replace hers on lds.org. In my case, even my photo disappeared. The good news is that you can update most of that information directly on lds.org.
- Make sure your local clerk updates your legal name. When MLS changes a woman’s name, it records her husband’s last name as her legal name. Your clerk will need to update your record, but if he updates only your preferred name, the incorrect name will show up other places and continue to cause headaches.
- Provide your local clerk with Church-approved instructions. Local clerks are volunteers with many responsibilities, so it’s understandable if your clerk does not know how to make this change. Pointing your clerk to this webpage (or even printing it off beforehand) will provide directions, as well as reassuring any clerk who is confused about Church policy.
- Ask your local clerk to update your household name. After your legal name is updated, MLS will still list your husband’s last name as the household name. Since ward directories list households rather than individual members, that will make it difficult for others in your stake and ward to find you. In our case, the directory listed us as Ashcroft, Gary and Emily. To see my last name, a member would have to first click on the Ashcroft household and scroll down to our individual entries. Some couples spend years with this conundrum, but it’s actually an easy fix. Household name is a separate entry that can be updated directly, without changing the name on your husband’s records. We asked our clerk to list a hyphenated household name for us. Now our household shows up as Ashcroft-Belanger, Gary and Emily. When members click on our household, our individual names are still correct. We decided to go with alphabetical order and keep Ashcroft first, but you can list the household name in whatever order you want.
- Consider bringing your husband when you request the change, especially if you are asking a clerk to update your household name. I hesitate to add this step, because I don’t want to suggest that you need your husband’s approval. But in our case, my husband’s presence and support as I spoke with clerks communicated a unified family decision.
- Know Church policy. It is Church policy to record accurate legal names; a woman is not required to share her husband’s name; and clerks are encouraged to request but not require proof of a legal name change. Church policy fully supports your desire for records that accurately reflect your legal name.