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Take your wife’s name? That’ll cost you -- so ACLU steps in

Times Staff Writer

Long before they got engaged on a ridge in the Grand Tetons, they had talked about the future and children and names -- specifically their own surnames. She loved hers. He wanted to shed his.

Diana Bijon asked her boyfriend if he would take her last name if they got married.

“I always hoped I would meet a guy who would let my kids take my name. My name dies with me, and my sister and I love my dad so much,” said Bijon, 28, an ER nurse at UCLA whose father is a French emigre.

Mike Buday, estranged from his father, felt little attachment to his last name. He agreed to change it.

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“Diana’s father, to a certain extent, is a father figure to me,” he said.

A couple of years later, when Buday, 29, proposed marriage while on a backpacking trip, Bijon reminded him about their previous conversation.

“I said, ‘Remember we talked about names? Are you really going to take my last name?’ ”

Buday, unfazed, said yes.

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“It was,” he said, “not a big deal.”

Not until he actually tried to take his fiancee’s last name.

On the marriage license application, which now costs $70 to file in L.A. County, Bijon could simply fill in her last name or her soon-to-be husband’s last name.

But if Buday wanted to become a Bijon, he would have to get an order of the court to do so -- and not before he had filed a petition, paid $320, advertised public notice of his intention to change his name for four weeks in a local newspaper and then appeared before a judge.

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“It strikes both of us -- especially me -- that this is not on equal ground,” said Buday, now married to Bijon for more than a year but reduced to still using his, well, maiden name. “This is about gender equality.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California agreed. Today the organization plans to file suit against the state of California in federal court, arguing that the difficulty a husband faces when changing his name to his wife’s violates the equal protection clause provided by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

“This is important to the couple and it’s important symbolically,” said the local ACLU’s legal director, Mark Rosenbaum, who called the current license application “the perfect marriage application for the 17th century.”

When the couple, who live in Marina del Rey, sent an e-mail about their plight to the ACLU -- one of thousands of inquiries the group receives -- the organization took on the case with gusto.

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“Every step of that process reflects a process of subordination of the wife,” Rosenbaum said. “You have to get permission of the state to choose the name of the wife, you have to pay for it ... you have to let the public know.... And finally you have to go to court to get approval.

“If you want to set up a system to discourage couples from adopting the name of the wife, this is it.”

Only six states allow either spouse to take the other’s surname as a result of marriage.

It wasn’t that long ago that women had to battle to keep their last name after marriage.

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“Until the 1970s, women had to go to court to keep their maiden name or to change back to it after divorce or widowhood,” said Hannah Cannom, an associate of the law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy who worked pro bono on the ACLU filing.

Now, it’s a simple option in California for a woman to keep her name. But if the husband wants to change his last name, or if the couple wants to hyphenate their names or create a new one, they run into the same hurdles that the wannabe Bijons faced.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who famously combined his last name, Villar, with that of his wife -- Raigosa -- when the couple married in 1987, also had to go to court to change his name, the mayor’s office confirmed.

“Since he changed his name as a person getting married, you would have thought someone else would have seen this before and wanted to take it up as something to change,” said Christa Chan-Pak, another Milbank associate who worked pro bono on the filing.

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After Buday and Bijon found out he couldn’t automatically take her name, someone suggested that he try the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a name change. Buday only succeeded in cracking up the clerks at the Santa Monica DMV.

“They sort of scoffed at me and laughed,” said Buday, a senior technical manager at an advertising firm. “The supervisor said, ‘We don’t do that. Men don’t change their last names.’ The surprising thing is all four people I interacted with were female.”

Buday and Bijon decided to contact the ACLU after they realized the process that the name change would entail.

“We thought, ‘Whoa, that’s insane for two people who were getting married and trying to share a name,” Bijon said.

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Buday, who says he is not particularly traditional, never considered the convention of a woman changing her last name to be sacrosanct. And right after college, when he ran a business, he used his middle name as his last name for the venture.

“My primary value related to names is you need to have one name,” he said. “The hyphenated name is a cop-out. A family, to be a family, should all have the same name.

“So I guess there is a traditional value in that. It’s a little weird in my mind for the husband and wife to have different last names.”

The couple, who married in August 2005, went to her parents first with their decision.

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“When we asked my parents what they thought about him taking my last name,” Bijon said, “they said, ‘We’d be honored.’ ”

Buday’s family was a little less enthusiastic.

“My brother said something like, ‘That’s weird.’ ”

Most of the couple’s friends and colleagues have been supportive about their quest.

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“We already do, in general, call ourselves Mr. and Mrs. Bijon. That’s how our Christmas cards went out,” Buday said.

carla.hall@latimes.com


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