Name change proves a mysterious and outdated process
There are a lot of misconceptions around name change. I often heard through conversation that when you got married or divorced, you could legally and easily change your last name to whatever you wanted.
I had heard of couples who picked a completely new name when they wed, although I never personally knew anyone who did. When I got divorced, I remembered the misinformation I had heard long ago, and decided I was not going to return to my maiden name, and would instead pick something different.
I quickly found out that when a person divorces, they can either keep their married name or return to their previous name, but to legally change it to something different requires the same name change process as it does for anyone else.
The process to change your name is surprisingly lengthy, pricey and arguably outdated. People fill out forms, pay a $168 filing fee (there is also a fee to obtain a new birth certificate once the name is legally granted), get assigned to a judge, schedule a hearing date with the court and take out a statement in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel or the Daily Reporter three weeks in a row declaring intent of name change.
News websites are not approved for legal name change declaration, but this does not mean they couldn't be someday, according to Milwaukee County Clerk of Circuit Court John Barrett.
"The process is very old and it hasn't been changed in a long time, but that's not to say it couldn't be," says Barrett. "The Wisconsin legislature decides that. Someone would have to have an interest in that change and take the time to make the argument that we're in a changing world and publications shouldn't be limited to print."
In 2015, 502 people changed their name in Milwaukee. Interestingly, parents can easily change the name of their child the first year of his or her life and a person only has to be 15 to legally change their own name. "They still have to go before a judge and have it granted, though," says Barrett.
People choose a new name for many different reasons, including because a parent wants to change their child's last name, a person has a new identity or gender, an individual desires a fresh start in life or sometimes because the person never liked their name or wanted something more interesting or expressive of their personality.
There aren't laws prohibiting a person from changing their name to something unique, but it is up to the individual judge to approve, and symbols or numbers are usually not permitted.
"There was a woman in Milwaukee who legally changed her name to 'Happy Holiday.' She wanted every day to be a holiday," says Barrett. "And somewhere in Milwaukee there's a woman named 'Black Widow.'"
In some states, registered sex offenders can't change their names and people with a professional license, with the exception of teachers, need the approval of the licensing board – except for routine name changes in marriages and divorces.
The laws are in place, according to Barrett, to protect people.
"You don't want someone with a bunch of debts to change their name willy nilly without giving notice," he says. "Or if someone, say, is a murderer and wants to get back in society, people have a right to know this individual took on a new identity."
People often ask Milwaukee's Moonmuffin Smiley if that is her real name, and it is. Although she was born with a different first name, Smiley got the nickname "Moonmuffin" when she was 17 and working as a server at Scrap's Rock & Roll Diner in Walker's Point.
"The regulars gave it to me. I liked it and it stuck," says Smiley, who owns Eco Pet & Sacred Luna on Brady Street.
Even though she started going by "Moonmuffin" in 1993, she did not legally change her name until she married her husband, whose last name is Smiley, in 2005.
"He was teased a lot about his name growing up, but I really liked it and was happy to take his last name when we married," she says.
The couple went on to have two children, Rayne Forrest Smiley and Jude River Smiley.
Smiley says people often ask her if her name is "real." "To me, it is very real," she says. "I associate with it more than my birth-given name."
Sometimes, Smiley produces her driver's license to prove her name is legit, but in other moods, she simply says her real name is "George" or that her dad was an astronaut and her mother was a baker, hence the "Moonmuffin" moniker.
Over the years, people have poked fun at Smiley's name – and not always to her face. Once she Googled her full name and found it on a list of the Top Worst Baby Names Ever and the article was written by her former bank teller.
"I have even had people steal my name – first and last – to use on social media," she says. "I have also heard that 'Moonmuffin' was the name that Alex P. Keaton's hippie parents were going to name him on the show 'Family Ties,' but I don't recall that episode. Really, all that matters is that I love my name."
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