If you’re a newly married woman—or about to tie the knot—you’ve probably thought about whether or not you’ll take your partner’s last name. Most women, or about 70%, do, according to a Google Consumer Survey conducted by The Upshot. Roughly 20% of women who have married in recent years use their maiden names, and approximately 10% choose something else—like hyphenating their last names (e.g., Clark-Anderson) or, on the more creative end of the spectrum, combining their last names via “name blending” into something entirely new to both partners (e.g., Clarkson).

Of course, if you're a same sex or other LGBQT+ couple, there may either be no "maiden" involved—or two of them—so tradition isn't a guide on what to do. Some couples choose to keep their own names. Others, as noted above, go the hyphen route or create a new last name. Or they may simply decide they prefer one name over the other. Sometimes the issue doesn't come up until there are children and the question arises of which last name to give them.

If you're thinking about taking your spouse's name, read on to learn about the possible implications of making that choice. (We're going to use "women" here, but these issues could apply to anyone choosing to change their name upon marrying.)

How does the statistical Google Consumer Survey snapshot compare with what women have done historically? And what might the financial consequences be for a woman who keeps her maiden name today? The answers to those questions may influence the decision making of women who are about to marry and find they are on the fence about a name change.

Key Takeaways

  • The number of women who keep their names after marriage is increasing.
  • Highly educated, high-earning women are more likely to keep their names after marriage.
  • Studies have found that women who married later were more likely to keep their maiden names and that women who kept their names earned more over the course of their careers.

Challenging Tradition

In the past, it was a given that a woman in the U.S. would take her husband’s name upon marriage. The tradition was tested when suffragist Lucy Stone refused to take her husband’s name. That was in 1855. In 1879, when women were granted the right to vote in Boston school elections, Stone was denied that right for her refusal to add her husband's name to her signature.

Nearly 60 years later, in 1913, Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, married and chose to keep her maiden name for career reasons—a move that was, of course, met simultaneously with applause from feminists and resentment from social conservatives. “I suppose I had been somewhat touched by feminist ideas and that’s one of the reasons that I kept my maiden name,” Perkins said in an interview. “My whole generation was, I suppose, the first generation that openly and actively asserted—at least some of us did—the separateness of women and their personal independence in the family relationship.”

As women like Stone and Perkins continued to challenge social norms, keeping one’s maiden name became a sign of independence, especially so during the 1970s when women fought against state laws for the right to keep their last names—and use them to vote, bank, and get a passport. Still, much to the surprise of social scientists (and the women who challenged those laws in the 70s), the 1980s saw a decline in the number of women keeping their names. One explanation: “The pressure is huge,” Laurie Scheuble, a sociology professor at Penn State who studies marital naming, told the New York Times. “This is the strongest gendered social norm that we enforce and expect.”

More Women Today Keep Maiden Names

Despite a decline in the practice during the 1980s, today there’s a resurgence in women keeping their last names after marriage. There are a few theories that help explain why. One is that more people—and especially celebrities—are keeping their last names, or at least not taking their partner’s names, which may give a sort of green light to buck the norm. Beyoncé, for example, hyphenated to Knowles-Carter after marrying Jay-Z (she doesn’t really use a last name anyway), and supermodel Chrissy Teigen kept her last name when she married musician John Legend. Of course, many powerful women—though not necessarily of the same celebrity status of Beyoncé—also keep their maiden names (Janet Yellen, Sheryl Sandberg, and Marissa Mayer, to name a few). 

A more substantive explanation is that more couples today live together before marriage, which means they’re already used to living in a household with two names before they tie the knot. Changing names could be viewed as unnecessary, an inconvenience, and/or too time-consuming. Wedding website The Knot, for example, lists at least a dozen places where you’ll need to change your name—and that’s after you go through the process of changing your Social Security card and driver’s license.  

There’s also this: Highly educated, high-earning women are far more likely to keep their names after marriage. And today, women earn a disproportionate share of college degrees at every level of higher education, according to estimates from the Department of Education. For the Class of 2018 (the most recent data available), women will earn 141 college degrees at all levels for every 100 men. By 2027, this gender disparity is expected to jump to 151 college degrees for women for every 100 degrees earned by men.

Is Keeping Your Maiden Name a Good Financial Move?

While there are lots of reasons for women to keep their maiden names, is thinking that it's a good financial move one of them? According to a 2010 study conducted by the University of Tilburg in Holland, the answer is yes. In the study women who kept their maiden names made as much as $500,000 more over the course of their careers than those who opted to take their husband’s names.

The research found that women who changed their names were viewed as “more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, less competent, and less ambitious.” Women who kept their names, on the other hand, were seen as “less caring, more independent, more ambitious, more intelligent, and more competent.”

$500,000

The increase in earnings a woman who keeps her maiden name might achieve over the course of her career.

The study also asked participants to use five words to describe “Helga” after meeting her at a party. Some met Helga Kuipers and her husband, Peter Bosboom, while others met Helga and Peter Bosboom. Those who met Helga Bosboom described her as caring, dependent, and emotional. Those who met Helga Kuipers—who had apparently kept her maiden name—described her as more intelligent and competent.

These impressions seem to make a big difference when it comes to getting hired. In another part of the study, a fake job interview was set up in which the same woman was interviewed, once under the guise of a hyphenated name, and then using her husband’s name. The study found that the woman with the hyphenated name was more likely to get hired and was offered a significantly higher salary than the same woman using her husband’s name.

The Importance of Personal Branding

The Dutch study showed that women are perceived differently if they use their maiden names, and those first impressions may ultimately lead to higher lifetime earnings. Of course, many women who keep their maiden names do so because they marry later in life or at a time when their careers are already in full swing, and it could be risky—career-wise and financially speaking—to change names. That’s partly due to the value of “personal branding” or, in simple terms, name recognition.

A woman with hundreds of bylines as a well-known writer, for example, may feel like she’s starting over by taking her partner’s name. So, too, might any woman with an established name and “brand.” Research by Leigh Ann Humphries, Harvard Medical School class of 2017, supports this. Using an online survey, Humphries asked 103 female classmates about their plans for their last names after marriage. The study found that 65% of women planned to keep their maiden names, and that 63% of the married women had already done so. Most felt that marrying later in their medical training—when their careers were already established—would make it more likely for them to keep their maiden names.

The Bottom Line

Whether a woman keeps her name or uses her partner’s after marriage is a matter of personal choice, and today there are no legal issues with doing either. Still, there is at least some evidence that a woman who keeps her name—especially if she already has an established professional presence—may ultimately enjoy higher earnings over the course of her career.