For recent weddings, Real ID poses no marriage name confusion

  • Even with a Real ID fiasco, Holly and Rick Williams enjoy having lunch together after 42 years of marriage in downtown Concord. Holly works on South Main Street and Rick works on North Main so they meet in the middle most days. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 12/22/2019 4:02:39 PM

When the Monitor ran a story on Dec. 15 about married women having trouble getting a Real ID because their documents didn’t reflect that they had turned their maiden name into their middle name, we got a lot of responses – but we also noticed something odd. 

More than a dozen New Hampshire women contacted us with tales similar to that in our story, of being turned away by their local Division of Motor Vehicles office because they didn’t have documented proof that they had changed their middle name. Many were irritated that they’d have to spend $110 and take time to go to Probate Court just to legalize a name they had been using for decades. They were also angry that it seemed their identity was being rejected.

However, we also encountered an unexpected reaction: Some younger women were confused by the story. They told us they had no Real ID problem because their marriage certificate clearly stated their full name, including middle name. 

Why the difference? It’s due to same-sex marriage.

“That’s when it changed,” said Denise Gonyer, director of the state’s Vital Records Administration and a person who, by dint of having spent 32 years as town clerk in Gilford, has encountered every possible question about marriage paperwork.

The state law on the topic (RSA 5- C:41) is surprisingly complicated, running to 18 numbered sections and 1,200 words, much longer than this article. It is full of legalese and discussion about things like “subparagraph (a)” – but importantly, it contains this: “If a party requests a surname change under this paragraph, that party may also change his or her middle name to his or her surname prior to the marriage. Each party shall indicate on the marriage application worksheet the party's name after marriage.”

This wording requires people to write down what was often assumed before then, explaining why people who were married recently haven’t encountered the issue.

The wording is part of changes made by legislators since 2015, when the legalization of same-sex marriage forced everybody to examine long-held assumptions not just about the gender of the people at the altar but also the idea that the bride would take the groom’s last name, relegating her family name to secondary status.

“There was no document. You could choose. That was the norm,” said Gonyer. “Never had a problem with Social Security, IRS, driver’s license or any of those places.”

Things started to tighten up after the 9/11 terror attacks, but it was the advent of the federal Real ID system, creating a nationally accepted identification system using state licenses, that brought the issue to the fore. Suddenly officials were told to demand documentation for something that never needed it previously.

“It has become really prevalent since Real ID, where everybody has to prove it now. That’s the piece that is different,” said Gonyer. “I’ve had people very upset about it. This is how they’ve been known and they feel like their identity is being questioned. It almost invalidates them – that’s how they feel. It’s very emotional.” 

It is so emotional, in fact, that the federal government has told states to back off a bit, saying that if documents show a “logical connection” between names – for example, the last name on a birth certificate is the middle name on an adult married person’s driver’s license – then it should be accepted. What effect this will have on Real ID applications in New Hampshire remains to be seen.

“It seems like New Hampshire is responding to this in a pretty good manner,” she said.

To an extent, Gonyer added, the controversy shouldn’t be a surprise because the question of names has always been complicated, as any town clerk can attest.

“We have cases where people were not given a middle name at birth, or from baptism or religious belief were given a different name. Or they’ve been using a middle name for a very long time but it wasn’t necessarily given to them on their birth certificate,” she said. 

She also gave examples of name changes that people have tried to adopt after marriage that aren’t legal, such as combining parts of partners’ last names into a new name, taking the name of a step-parent or other relative, or just making up a whole new name. 

“This is not a legal name change. You can go to court for that,” she said. 

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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