The Problem with Automatically Changing Women’s Last Names and What to do if it Happens to You

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5.  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.
  6. 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.

  • emesbe

    Well done. Through our conversation about this, I don’t think I’ve shared WHY this is so important to me. I married for the first time in 1995. I changed my last name. My name was then long and took forever to write, but I did it, because that’s what you did.
    7 years later, I found out that husband had been a serial adulterer for years. I divorced him, and I went back to my maiden name when I did. It was something I could take back from him, something I could control. He took my dignity, he took my home, but he couldn’t have my name.
    I met my second husband. We discussed getting married. I told him from the beginning that I would not be changing my name. He was a little incredulous. He wondered what I wanted to do if we had any children. I told him I had no issue with any children having his last name, but I would not be changing mine. (we haven’t had any children, and are coming up on our 8th anniversary.) If that was a problem for him, he should cut and run now.
    We were civilly married. The ward clerk asked to see our marriage certificate. I brought it in, I just thought he needed to have proof of a wedding. But no, that’s when he changed my name. I thought I could just tell people to call me by my legal name. But no. My name was now changed on all the rolls, the VT lists. I haven’t really insisted on it being changed. I guess I haven’t really wanted to rock the boat with all the MoFem going on.
    My husband and I have begun the process of applying for temple sealing. I’m afraid our last names are going to cause confusion. When we go see our bishop, I”m going to insist my name be changed in MLS. That means that our household will have 3 different names. (my daughter has her dad’s name) I don’t think it should be this hard to call someone by their legal name. I don’t believe someone’s name should be changed without their permission.

    • emesbe

      I’m now excited to report that my name on the records has been changed back to my legal name. I didn’t even have to talk to the bishop, I just turned in my papers for sealing cancellation with my legal name on them, and he had the clerk do it. :)

  • Austin Smith

    This is wonderful, thank you so much! I just got married a month ago and my wife and I are in the midst of trying to fix her name after the automatic change.

    P.S. the first link (to BCC) is broken; until it gets fixed, if anybody else is trying to follow it but couldn’t, it’s here.

  • skyblue

    Congratulations to you and your husband on your marriage!!

    It’s always nice when someone who’s dealt with an issue like this provides step by step instructions for others.

    When my aunt got married in the early 70s, local law changed her name against her wishes. So she had to do a second legal process to change her name… to her name. What a hassle!

  • RaymondSwenson

    This s not a matter of any Church doctrine or even polcy. Like you said, in other countries and cultures, naming conventions are different, such as in Mongolia, and even in Spanish. The family name is listed first in China, Korea and Japan.

    So this is merely an administrative and records management process. Since most people in the US and Canada still follow conventional name change practices at marriage, it maes sense for the Chirch membership tecords to follow that as the default to minimize the amount of human effort (and human errors). However, the ability to make.it simple to update records to reflect the preference of those who opt for the non-default pattern is alo needed.

    While most people learn how to use computer systems for work or recreation, very few have ever written software, so the idea of fallability in the computers and the need for human intervention is not familiar to a lot of people. But even so, assuming that a data system defaults.in a certain way becase the Quorum of the Twelve designed it that way is ludicrous. If your membership clerk won’t fix things like this, then ask your bishopric to incentivize.him.

    A lot of the erements in the ward rosters in LDS Tools can be adjusted by the member. Remember that they key identifier in the system is your.unique number, which does not change, ever. Your name is a secondary, and adjustable, data field in that unique record.

    As to takng your husband along, most people in my ward talk to the clerks right after the meeting block, so you shouldn’t have to make a special trip for this. I suggest you write a signed note for the clerk so he does not have to make data entries on the spot and can document that you requested the fix.

  • Sylvia Cabus

    Moroccan women don’t change their names upon marriage so I kept mine, but in the ward directory I’m under my Moroccan husband’s name and he’s not even Christian!

  • SwimmerJohn

    @RaymondSwenson:disqus is correct that this is not a matter of Church doctrine or policy.

    The Church membership software (MLS) has settings in it that are configured from Church headquarters to tell it how names are handled in specific cultures. When a marriage is recorded, the software prompts the clerk with a message asking how the name should be changed. It provides a suggested name based on the cultural defaults set by Church headquarters, but does not make the change automatically.

    The statement that “the Church’s software program automatically changes a woman’s last name when she marries” is not correct.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X