In a decision rendered on August 3, 2012, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey held that a person has no legal right to compel his former spouse to cease using his surname despite a written agreement between the parties to that effect. The relevant New Jersey divorce statute (NJSA: 34-21) states that upon granting a divorce, the court “may allow either spouse to resume any name used by the spouse…before the marriage…or to assume any surname.” Applying strict principles of interpretation, the Court determined that while the statute grants authority to permit a name change, it does not provide authority to compel a name change (emphasis supplied by author).
In this case, the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement provided that “Defendant…shall resume her maiden name…”. Despite this clear expression of mutual intent, the Court found no legal authority to enforce such a provision. The ruling is also instructive as to the limits to which divorcing parties can negotiate or litigate issues which may, for various reasons, wind up being unattainable or unenforceable. Any person going through a divorce needs to be aware of such matters in order to avoid unforeseen and unintended outcomes such as the above.