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Overheard on the Message Boards: Divorce and Surname Change
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

January 2, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I need help on how to represent the following in Family Tree Maker. My sister married and later divorces and reverts back to her maiden name. I have logged the fact of the divorce but do not know how to change surname from the married surname back to the maiden name. Your direction and/or advice will set me straight. Your time and consideration are really appreciated. -- Jim

A: While your question deals specifically with the name change of a woman either at the time of a divorce when she wishes to return to her maiden name, many people have similar challenges in their family trees. There are other name changes that may also need to be addressed by people. We have seen celebrities change their name and I have found records of others who changed their name for different reasons, some of them to avoid the law, as they were not exactly following the straight and narrow path.

Before addressing how you handle the name changes in the Family Tree Maker program specifically, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss how names of individuals are recorded in genealogy, whether you do that recording in a genealogy program or on pre-printed genealogical forms. There are a few standards that have been established with regard to this and I think it may make a difference in how you handle this.

Name changes are one of the intricacies of genealogy.

A Look at the Standard

I will have to admit that I have been involved in genealogy since before computers. Now unlike some of those I know who have been researching their genealogy since the 1960s, I fortunately began my research just a couple of years before computers began to make an appearance as a personal household item. Having a husband who is heavily into computers, though, I do know that I was one of those on the cutting edge in that we had a personal computer long before they were cool. I share this little walk down memory lane to point out that my introduction to genealogy was at a time when everyone was using either 3x5 inch cards, notebook sheets of paper, or pre-printed forms to record the information they were finding.

At the time when genealogists were recording this information by hand, the standard was to write the name with the given name in mixed case and the surname in all caps. This made it easy for anyone viewing the information to quickly identify the surname, which as we know may be more than one word and is not always the last word of the name. Today in order to identify such unique surnames in genealogy programs we must manually identify the surname for the software program, each program having their own code or other system. In Family Tree Maker this is done by surrounding the appropriate words with the back slash character. You then have options when it comes to printing reports to have the surname printed in a bold format or some other way, including in all caps in some programs.

While the way in which you identify the surname has changed some as we have moved almost completely from paper forms to the computer, the other standard for recording names has not. Whenever you record the name of a woman, whether on a preprinted form or in your Family Tree Maker family file, the standard is to record her name with her maiden name.

It was hard for me to tell from your message if she was entered in your family file under her maiden surname or her maiden surname. You may have entered her this way and it just wasn't clear, and if so, then you have done exactly what you should have done. I mention this for other readers, especially those who are new to genealogy and are entering the information completely into a computer and may not, as yet, had a chance to learn some of the basics of the hobby.

When it comes to other individuals who have changed their name, and I do not mean just a variation on the spelling of the surname, but made a major change, there are different things that need to be considered when recording the name on the sheets or in a genealogy program. There is, of course, the standard, but there are other things, such as recognizability, to weigh when working with name changes.

Just What Was His Name

When I am compiling the celebrity family trees that get published here on, one of the biggest problems I have is that fact that many celebrities have changed their name in some way. Some are more radical changes than others. Some are an abbreviation of the birth name while others are a complete change. In compiling the trees, I have to consider how to include the person so that those looking at the trees at will recognize the celebrity but also impart all the information I need so that should someone wish to do additional research they have all the important details about the person and the tree.

What I elected to do was to put the celebrity into the genealogy program with the name they are famous for. I then include a note about that person's real birth name so that those looking at the final published genealogy, as it appears, only has both names to work with should they decide to do additional research in original and primary records.

A variation on this theme is how to record a name when the surname changes spellings. My rule of thumb there is to record the spelling as I find it in the first record I find on that person. If I am then lucky enough to find a birth record for the person, I will change the spelling of the surname to that spelling if it is different. This is my approach for non-celebrities. Others I know adhere to a standardized spelling in the database and then include a list of variant spellings for their personal use as they are working in the records.

A standardized spelling does make it easier to search for people in your database, but I confess I like to see the variations on the charts to see how the name has evolved. Of course, as we will see in a moment this can be accomplished in Family Tree Maker so that the best of both worlds is reached.

Name Changes in Reports

In Family Tree Maker, you have the ability to include many different names actually. In addition to the name you enter in the Family View, there is also a Name fact that allows you to enter additional names for an individual. If you take advantage of this feature you must then select a preferred name that will be used in the various reports and charts. In addition to the Name fact, there is also what we short handedly call the AKA name. The Also Known As name is yet another place where you can put a name. I tend to use this field for nicknames myself, but you can enter any name variation you want.

In your specific case, as you are printing the various reports and charts, it is possible that you will need to make some changes in the options of the Items to Include. It sounds like when you are printing a report or viewing it on your screen that instead of seeing the woman's maiden name that you are actually seeing her married name. If you did enter her with her maiden name, then this could explain why you continue to see her married name. With one of the trees or reports open, with the exception of the family group sheet and the genealogy report, you will see an Items to Include button along the right of the window. It is in here that you will make changes.

After you have the Items to Include window open, click on the name fact as you have it listed in the right column, that is in the list of items that will be included in the tree or report. Once you have it highlighted you should notice that the Options button in the center of the window is activated. Click on the Option button and you will see that among other things you can force the report to list women with their married name. It is possible that this has been turned on in your program.

In Conclusion

Women should always be recorded with their maiden name. While this means that you need to keep any married surname in mind as you look for a death, burial or SSDI entry for that woman, the standard has always been to record women with the maiden name. They could have three or four husbands, which would be revealed in the various printed reports or in looking at her list of spouses, but knowing her maiden name is what is necessary to take that particular line back another generation. The power of genealogy programs often let us do so many things with the information we have entered that we sometimes forget how to turn them back off later and find ourselves frustrated as we get a report with a name or event we really didn't want to see.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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