A common surname is a public statement of family. But for gay couples in Texas, it can be an expensive statement

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

K.C. and Larry Jansson
K.C. and Larry Jansson

Opposite-sex couples have traditionally changed names after marriage. Usually the wife changes her name to her husband’s. But in more current practice, both husband and wife often choose to adopt a last name that includes both their names joined by a hyphen.

But for same-sex couples, changing last names is a relatively recent phenomenon. And same-sex couples that choose to change their names usually do it for the same reason as their straight counterparts: As a public statement of their status as a family.

But the time and cost involved for same-sex couples to change their name points out yet one more special right enjoyed by heterosexual couples whose marriage license is accepted by all states and the federal government.

After a heterosexual couple marries, a woman can change her name on a driver’s license and any legal documents, bank accounts, insurance policies and other paperwork with just the marriage license.

Legwork is involved, but the cost is minimal. No attorneys are involved. No questions are asked. And nowhere does the law specify she can do that. Things aren’t so easy when same-sex couples want to change their names.

When Jon and Cliff Garinn decided they wanted to share a last name, they consulted their attorney. They said it was the first such case she had handled since Texans had voted to amend the state’s Constitution to ban gay marriage, and the lawyer told them she thought it might have turned into a test case if a judge had rejected it on grounds that they were trying to create a same-sex marriage that Texas law now specifically forbade.

Even though that wasn’t the case, it wasn’t an easy process.

First the Garinns each had to go through a criminal background check, and step necessary, attorney Stephanie Hall, explained, because no one convicted of more than a Class C misdemeanor can be granted a name change.

Judges can also deny the name-change application if they think the applicants are trying to avoid creditors — and if the judge thinks the couple is trying to obtain marriage rights.

Since the Garinns were both changing their names, paperwork was filed with the court for each separately and each had a separate hearing. The judge asked why each one wanted a name change. Each man gave the answer that had been suggested by their attorney: he wanted his own identity, separate from his family.

Jon Garinn said they weren’t looking to be a test case. They just wanted to be “the Garinns,” the couple that everyone in their area knew as the head of their Oak Cliff neighborhood association.

Despite Texas’ refusal to recognize same-sex relationships legally, name changes can be helpful in a number of situations, Hall noted. For instance, if one partner is hospitalized, there will likely be fewer questions about one visiting the other when they share a last name.

Hall said she has been handling name changes for years, and most of her cases are related to adoption.

“We have a huge community of couples raising families in Dallas,” she said.

In most cases, Hall said, they take a hyphenated name with the adoptive parent’s name last. But in one case, she said the non-custodial parent’s name was last to make him feel more equal.

Hall said that with the court order, changing most documents was easy. She joked that with all the hyphenation, some people end up with four names and that she didn’t know how they filled out a passport application that doesn’t easily allow for that.

Lorie Burch is an estate-planning attorney who has helped a number of couples with name changes.

She said some people are more attached to their names than others. Her own partner had been married to man before marrying Burch and had already changed her name once.

“If I changed my name for him, why couldn’t I change the name for you whom I’m supposed to be with?” she told Burch.

Changing Burch’s name to her wife’s would have been more difficult because of her established business.

Although a name change does not form a legal family or partnership, nor does it bestow any of the rights of marriage, couples with the same name say it is a convenience.

At the doctor, records are filed together. The vet would have all the pets under the same last name. Name cards at an event would be together in alphabetical order.

Burch called this perception of family a sort of social protection.

Larry Jansson changed his name to his partner’s in January after they were married out of state in December.

“It comes down to the little things that solidify who you are as a couple,” he said.

The couple plans to have children in the future so the name change was a step toward creating that family.

Jansson said they thought about which name to use, and, “It’s a funny gay thing. His sounded better.”

On his court papers, Jansson wrote that he wanted to have a household name as the reason for the change. He said that because they shared a last name, a number of people have asked them if they were brothers.

“It opens doors to have conversations,” he said.

Natalie and April Amberson were married in Toronto last July.

“Changing my name is something I always wanted to do,” said Natalie Amberson. “It validates us as a couple.”

She said taking her wife’s name has given her a sense of pride.

“I like being called Ms. Amberson,” she said.

Amberson has found that sharing a name has been very convenient. Their mortgage is under one name. If one needs to call about a bill, she doesn’t have to explain that she’s calling on behalf of the other when they have the same name.

She said that whenever she has had to explain to a straight co-worker or friend what she had to go through, they’re surprised. She said they get a marriage license and change their name.

“Unfortunately, I had to pay,” Amberson said.

Cost is a factor in changing a name.

For an opposite-sex couple, a marriage license is about $25. A new driver’s license is $10. Most other documents don’t carry a change fee.

But for same-sex couples to get a legal name change, a criminal background check is $39. That must be accompanied by a set of fingerprints that Dallas policecharge $10 to take. The court-filing fee is about $250. Attorney fees run several hundred dollars.

For both partners to change their names, the total cost could total about $1,000.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 30, 2010.