This is a question that many people, especially women, ask themselves when they are about to get married in a foreign country. Traditions and customs vary from country to country, and it isn’t always clear what will happen to your surname, or whether you have a choice to keep your maiden name. Expertise in Labour Mobility (ELM) will attempt to clarify this by grouping some countries that have similar, if not identical traditions, as well as outline a person’s right to keep or change their name.
Our main observation after looking at several countries is that the main changes in naming practices are usually not a result of adjustments to a country’s laws, but more a result of the effects of modernity, as traditions and old norms slowly start to change. One trend in the english speaking world is that women, more often than in the past, choose to keep their maiden names after marriage. Apart from the feminist argument of equality between both sexes, one of the reasons for this is the increased participation rate of females in the workforce. Building up a career and earning a reputation are difficult, and many professionals decide to keep their name to make sure that they are correctly credited for their past and future work. Let’s start by looking at the English speaking countries.
English speaking Countries
In English speaking countries such as Australia, parts of Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, the most common practice is for the bride to take her husband’s last name. However, in recent years we have seen women, especially from the US and Canada, keep their own name, and add their husband’s surname behind it. If Mary Jane married John Smith, she could change her name to Mary Jane-Smith.
However, it is worth mentioning that the changing of a surname is more often than not governed by custom rather than law. In the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, there are no laws forcing women to change their surnames upon marriage. In the United States, only the state of Hawaii has a law forcing women to change their surname to that of their husbands.
Spanish speaking countries
In Spanish speaking countries, surnames do not change as a result of marriage. Both the bride and the groom keep their birth names. However, socially it is acceptable to refer to the wife as ‘Señora de’ (meaning ‘ wife of’) and then her husband’s surname. This is purely used in a social setting and is never acceptable legally. Under Spanish law, women cannot adopt their husband’s names.
What is peculiar is that their children obtain both their parents’ names. If Juan Carlos Rodriguez Lopez married Elena Torres Sanz , their daughter would be called Francisca Rodriguez Torres. The surname of the father would become her first last name. However, since 1995 parents in Spain can choose which of the two surnames will come first in their children’s names. Therefore, according to Spanish law, Juan Carlos and Elena can choose to name their daughter Francisca Torres Rodriguez.
Portugal and Brazil
In Portugese speaking countries things are similar to how it works in Spanish speaking countries, just the other way around. Children usually adopt their mother’s surname as their first, and their father’s surname as their second surname, but this is not required by law. Additionally, Portuguese law is quite flexible, and allows women to keep their own surname or adopt their husband’s surname. However, she must always keep one of her original surnames. If Leonor Almeida Sousa married João Oliveira Soares, she could change her name to Leonor Oliviera Soares Almeida, or Leonor Oliveira Soares Almeida Sousa.
In France, most women take over their husband’s name after getting married. However, they are not required to do so by law. In fact, French law forbids citizens from bearing any other name than their own birth name. Nevertheless, this law is ignored in practice. It is quite possible that most French citizens are not even aware of the existence of this law.
Finland and Sweden
When you get married in Finland or Sweden, it is custom for the bride to take the husband’s last name as an attachment to her maiden name. For example, if Marjatta Mäkinen marries Markus Koskinen, her name would change to Marjatta Mäkinen-Koskinen. It is also common for the bride to take the groom’s last name, replacing her own. The groom keeps his surname. By law, Fins may choose to use either the husband’s or the wife’s surname, or both. In Sweden, people can only have one surname. What many women choose to do is to use their husband’s surname as a middle name, and keep their original surname. As is the case in Finland, there are no laws in Sweden forcing women (or men) to adopt a certain surname.
We encourage our readers to add comments about other countries in the area below, to get a more complete picture of how things work abroad.