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State

Proposed law aims to ease a divorce burden

Stephanie Johnson has been divorced for several years. She put off changing back to her maiden name because of the added hassle of publishing the change in a newspaper, which has been a legal requirement. The Illinois legislature this spring passed a measure so that divorced women who wish to change their names back to their maiden name won't have to publish (and pay for) a notice in a newspaper. The bill awaits the governor's signature.
Stephanie Johnson has been divorced for several years. She put off changing back to her maiden name because of the added hassle of publishing the change in a newspaper, which has been a legal requirement. The Illinois legislature this spring passed a measure so that divorced women who wish to change their names back to their maiden name won't have to publish (and pay for) a notice in a newspaper. The bill awaits the governor's signature.

Stephanie’s last name is Johnson. Although she no longer wants it to be, she said it’s too much work to change.

But a new law, awaiting Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature, is designed to remedy that for divorced individuals (usually women) looking to revert to their maiden names, eliminating the legal requirement of publishing a notice in a newspaper in that circumstance.

“Is that even a thing anymore? It’s completely intrusive and ridiculous that I have to publicly announce this in a newspaper,” said Johnson, a 36-year-old Aurora mother of two who has been divorced for about 6 years.

She said she looked into changing her name a few years ago but her efforts stalled after learning the process was more labor-intensive than when she changed to her married name.

After hearing a similar complaint from a divorced friend, state Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, said she was inspired to sponsor legislation to eliminate the newspaper publication requirement for divorced women so it’s more in line with changing a name with a marriage certificate in hand.

As the law stands now, a person must pay for a legal notice in a newspaper as part of the court process for changing a name. There’s an exception if the person has a court-issued marriage certificate. Castro’s legislation would also add a divorce judgment to that.

Lawmakers passed the legislation in the spring, and Castro said she expects Pritzker will sign it into law.

“When you’re going through a divorce, the last thing you want is a personal experience like this to be out in the paper,” Castro said. “Then something very personal becomes very public.”

While many women include a name-change request within their judge-approved divorce decree – a step that also eliminates the need for official publication of the request – not all women know to ask a lawyer to include that, or can afford a lawyer to assist with a divorce, Castro added.

In Johnson’s case, she didn’t think she’d want to change her name. She said her kids were young at the time, “and in my head I’m thinking, I’m getting them ready to start preschool and for the continuity of it, I’ll just keep this last name.”

But she has since changed her mind. “The independent feminist in me started coming out,” she said.

“I’m still great friends with their dad, but I don’t want your name anymore,” Johnson added. The name “just didn’t resonate with me anymore.”

A stack of paperwork to carry out the change sits on her desk, being put off because of the extra steps, Johnson said. “It annoys me to no end that a man doesn’t have to do this.”

Evanston-based family law attorney Joshua Stern said it’s his standard practice to make sure a name change is included in his clients’ divorce decrees. While some don’t want to change their name back at the time of their divorce, they could change their mind down the line, he said.

Because divorce is a common legal action and can cost anywhere from $2,000 to upward of six figures, many couples try to do it without an attorney, Stern said, using legal websites or simply picking up forms from their county’s circuit clerk’s office.

“They might not know (to include a name change request) and the form might not prompt them to do this,” he said. Then, a woman is stuck going through additional legal steps to change back to her maiden name.

Katharine Baker, law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law who studies modern-day law as it pertains to marriage and families, said the fact that this wasn’t already an exception in the law is “an antiquated thing that definitely only affects women.”

While name changes require legal approval for privacy reasons and to combat identity theft, “there’s no good reason for it to be so hard” in cases of legally going back to a maiden name.

But, Baker added, “the more curious question is why do so many (married) women change their name” in the first place?

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