If you're newly married or about to tie the knot, you've probably thought about whether you'll take your partner's last name. Most women in the U.S. do—68.5%, according to a Google consumer survey conducted by New York Times blog The Upshot. Twenty-two percent of women keep their last (aka "maiden") names, and 8.9% choose something else—such as hyphenating (e.g., Clark-Anderson) or "name blending" into something entirely new to either partner (e.g., Clarkson). Within the LGBTQ+ community, 49% of couples choose one partner's last name, according to data from wedding website The Knot.

Women who take their spouse's last name do so for various reasons, from wanting to embrace tradition to being concerned that children will end up confused or unhappy if the parents have different last names. Still, more women today keep their last names after marriage, and both men and women are becoming progressively more open to alternatives.

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 last names after marriage.
  • Studies have found that women who married later were more likely to keep their maiden names.

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 in 1855. That decision led to Stone being denied the right to vote in a local election in Massachusetts in 1879.

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). 

Another reason is personal branding. 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—both 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 thousands 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.

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 data from the U.S. Department of Education.

According to reportage by the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute based on that data, 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.

Changing a Name Takes Time (and Money)

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 too time-consuming.

If you plan to change your name—whether you take your spouse's last name, combine your names, or create something new—expect to spend
some time and several hundred dollars making the switch. Keep in mind that you'll have to update a potentially long list of official documents and
accounts, including your:   

  • Social Security number
  • Driver's license
  • Voter registration
  • Insurance (home, vehicle, life)
  • Passport
  • TSA/Global Entry
  • Banking accounts
  • Credit cards
  • Rent, mortgage, and utilities
  • Loyalty programs
  • Employer's HR office or payroll processor
  • Social media profiles
  • Email addresses

If you take your spouse's last name or hyphenate, the legal process happens right on the marriage license and certificate. If you plan to blend or create a new name, you'll have to petition the court. The process varies by state, but you'll likely file for a court order from the county clerk. Costs also vary by state, but typically run between $250 and $300, according to HitchSwitch founder Jake Wolff.

Does Changing Your Name Affect Your Credit Score?

Your credit report is based on your financial behavior, so it won't change just because you get married. Likewise, it won't change if you take your partner's last name. However, if you take out loans together or open joint credit accounts, your spouse's financial habits will impact your score—for better or worse, depending on how those accounts are managed.

Keep in mind that the same five factors affect your credit score, whether you're married or single, or you keep your name or take your spouse's:

  • Payment history
  • Amounts owed
  • Length of credit history
  • New credit
  • Types of credit in use

The Bottom Line

Financially speaking, there's no evidence that keeping your last name will lead to higher career earnings (a 2010 Dutch study that claimed women who kept their maiden names would earn $500,000 more throughout their careers was debunked). Still, research shows that highly educated, high-earning women are more likely to keep their names after marriage.

Whether a woman keeps her name or uses her partner's after marriage is a matter of personal preference, and today there are no legal issues with doing either. More women today are opting to keep their last names, and more couples are open to alternatives—whether that's name blending, using each other's last names as middle names, or creating an entirely new last name.