YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


What's in a Surname? A Lot, to California


I have one last name.

My husband has another.

From that, the state of California could infer that our daughter was born out of wedlock.

After the state's odd method for calculating births to unwed mothers came to light last week, a column seemed in order on pinheaded, rule-bound, rigid-thinking bureaucrats mired in the Paleolithic notion that women are not really married if they don't surrender their surnames at the altar.

Then I called the man who heads the office that tracks births and other vital statistics for California and now I see why he is forced to draw such seemingly strange conclusions. Determining the out-of-wedlock birth rate, estimated at 35% in California, is much more complicated than looking at different last names and making guesses. Anthony Oreglia says he is forced to make inferences because it is illegal in California to ask parents to state marital status on birth certificates.

The reason? To protect children from the stigma that pinheaded, rule-bound, rigid-thinking people attach to "illegitimacy."

Oh, so it's OK if you call my kid a bastard because you're protecting someone else?

No one is calling anyone anything, Oreglia explains. The state is responsible for keeping track of demographic trends. It's not the fault of statisticians that the number of births to unwed mothers is a hot political issue.

As a group, children of unwed mothers are considered to be at higher risk for a gob of problems that are, in the words of our governor, "tearing apart the fabric of our society"--drug abuse, crime, out-of-wedlock births, welfare dependency.

In any case, a bill has just been introduced in Sacramento that would put marital status back on the birth certificate to avoid just this sort of statistical flaw, which Oreglia guesses might inflate the figure by 3% max, though no one knows for sure.

Who knew such a simple expression of feminism as keeping your own name could cause so much trouble?


On the day I wed, among other traumas, my best friend's mother asked whether I would change my name.

"Of course not," I replied. "Why do you even ask?"

From the stricken look on her face, you'd have thought I'd just confessed that the key to matrimonial bliss involved handcuffs, bedposts and third parties.

"That," she snapped, "is just plain wrong."

"Well," I shrugged through a haze of nerves, "it's a free country and you're entitled to your opinion. Anybody got a Valium?"

Not for an instant did I consider changing my name. It never struck me as necessary in any way to cement the bond of marriage. Marriage itself was the bonding agent.

And how.

My stepson, a liberated guy not given to sexist pronouncements, once referred to a friend's wife as "the ball and chain." Even I have to admit that the metaphor, especially coming from someone barely into his 20s, was darkly funny.

For plenty of people, a marriage certificate is some sort of emotional pink slip, a declaration of ownership, not partnership. And even the happiest marriage can sometimes feel as oppressive as house arrest.

Keeping my name was a way of stating my independence even as I happily gave up the single life.

"But what about your children?" people ask. "Won't it be terribly confusing if their parents have different last names?"

Only to the state of California, one is tempted to reply.

Anyhow, names aren't the measure of a family.

You know how I knew my husband and I were family? The day I could stand in the middle of a Laundromat folding his decrepit underwear without having to shout, I've never seen these before and I have no idea how they got into my dryer!


The state, bless its pea-sized brain, is (somewhat) smarter than you think.

Researchers don't just look at whether a mother and father have different last names and infer a lack of marriage. They have criteria, they have standards, they have guidelines.


If a mother has a different last name, but signs the father's last name on the birth certificate, the state infers that she is married.

If the mother and father both sign a birth certificate, even if they have different last names, they are considered married.

If the father alone signs the birth certificate, marriage is inferred.

If the mother signs two surnames, including the father's, she is counted as married.

If the baby's surname is the same as the mother's, the mother is considered unmarried, unless the child has a double surname in which the mother's surname is followed by the father's surname and the mother signs her birth surname only.

The mother is also considered married if the child is given a double surname of the mother's and father's surnames (either entire surnames or portions of the parent's hyphenated surnames), regardless of the sequence and the mother is of Hispanic origin.

Makes perfect sense.

Sort of.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

Los Angeles Times Articles