Civil Arrangements

originally published in the Hartford Advocate

Civil Arrangements
You can get a civil union, but no one is sure how to change your last name, even the people who wrote the law

By Jennifer Abel

Don’t you hate those annoying Sisyphus dreams where you keep trying to do some absurdly simple task, and fail again and again? Frustrating as they are, at least you get the eventual satisfaction of waking up and realizing you were only dreaming.

Hartford residents Tiffany Washington and Jennifer Moyer were wide awake when we spoke to them for this story. On Oct. 1, the couple went and got civilized — no, unionized — well, whatever the term is for “entered into a state-recognized civil union together,” they did it.

“We had a wedding ceremony in Massachusetts on Sept. 22,” said Washington. But the Nutmeg State doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, so “we had to come back to Connecticut to have a civil union … Oct. 1 is our legal date in Connecticut.”

That’s also the anniversary of the day Connecticut’s civil union law went into effect in 2005. Since then, getting civilunified is supposed to be the legal equivalent of getting married, at least where the state’s concerned.

However, the federal government doesn’t recognize civil unions. This means that, for example, civilly unionized employees of the state can get dependents’ health benefits for their partners, but federal employees living here cannot.

Washington and Moyer both work in public schools and qualify for each others’ benefits. No problem there. They also want to merge their last names together into Moyer-Washington.

Problem there. “I was under the impression that Connecticut’s civil union offered the same rights, protections and benefits as marriage,” Washington wrote in an e-mail. “My friend … got married Aug. 18. Her last name changed with her marriage certificate. … I have to pay $150 to have my last name legally changed as well as have a notarized letter sent to probate court in order to join my name with my spouse’s.”

Over coffee, Moyer and Washington told of a runaround. “I called the [Hartford] city clerk and asked about a name change,” said Washington. “She said I’d have to do the same as anyone who wanted a name change.”

That’s a lengthy, pricey process. “We’d each have to go to probate court, pay $150 each, get judicial approval, have that letter notarized, take that back to court — I think that’s the end.”

“No, the newspaper,” Moyer reminded her.

“A woman in City Hall said she thought we had to put a notice in the newspaper,” Washington continued. “I called [governor] Jodi Rell’s office … the woman in probate court didn’t know. Nobody does. I didn’t know this was such as issue.”

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to spend eternity pushing a boulder to the top of a steep hill, a simple task he could never complete because whenever he got near the summit, the boulder would roll back to the bottom of the hill.

But getting to the bottom of Washington and Moyer’s difficulties sounded like a less-than-Sisyphean task. The question’s simple enough: are post-marital name changes handled at the state or federal level?

The probate court in Hartford is state-level and handles a variety of matters including legal name changes. Specifically, they handle situations where you get a new name because you just don’t like your old one, a different matter from name changes reflecting alterations in marital (or civil-unital) status. But the woman who answered the phone when we called wasn’t sure how civil-union name changes went through.

“I don’t know if that [civil union] certificate would be sufficient … as far as Social Security or [the Department of] Motor Vehicles was concerned,” she said.

Staff members in Hartford’s Town and City Clerk’s office referred questions back to the probate court. A call to Governor Rell’s press office led to the suggestion we call state representative Mike Lawlor, who helped write the civil union legislation.

“Normally,” Lawlor said, “when you get married, you’re entitled to go to motor vehicles to get a new license — not probate court.” Driver’s licenses are a state matter, so civil union equal-protection laws apply. However, Lawlor added, “it’s the social security and federal side of this raising problems. The feds won’t recognize same-sex unions no matter what.”

Though Lawlor can’t speak on behalf of the federal government, he was very clear that at the state level, civilly unified couples in Connecticut are “entitled to change their name by going to [the DMV].”

Tiffany Washington wasn’t too encouraged when we told her this. “The civil union form doesn’t have the new last name on it,” she said. “DMV requires forms with the new and old last name [and] said you have to have a legal document with your before and after names.”

Oh. “Connecticut state law is very clear,” Lawlor said the next day. “Whatever state law applies to marriage applies to civil unions … I have someone checking this out.” In the meantime, Lawlor suggested calling the Motor Vehicle Department.

When you call the contact number listed on the DMV Web site, you’re told that dialing zero to speak to an operator won’t work unless you’ve been explicitly invited to do so. The Web site itself says “After you choose an issue you must then choose specific [sic] topic before you will be asked if you want to speak to an agent.”

After a half-hour’s worth of futile attempts to reach a human over the phone, this reporter gave up and drove to the DMV office in Wethersfield where, after being directed to multiple offices and windows, she finally got to meet DMV spokesman Bill Seymour.

“We don’t change names as an originating authority,” he said. “We must have documents from the originating authority to make the requested change … a marriage license, divorce decree or probate court documents.”

Oh. After thanking Seymour for his time, this reporter requested a contact number for future reference, and asked “Did you know it’s impossible to reach a human being through the phone number on your Web site?”

Seymour laughed. “I hear that complaint from a lot of people.”

It is, at least, easy to reach a human when you call Love Makes A Family, the Hartford-based organization seeking equal marriage rights for same-sex Connecticut couples. We asked assistant director Carol Buckheit if she knew anything about civil union name changes.

“To tell the truth, I know of couples who changed their names, but I’m not sure how,” she said, and suggested we speak to former LMAF board member Peg Otto. “She and her partner moved to San Diego, but come to Connecticut to visit their grandchild.”

Otto, meanwhile, said she’d had no trouble getting her driver’s license name changed, “but quite frankly I was with Love Makes A Family at the time and called our attorney … this is not the first time I’ve heard of people having problems.”

Otto also chose a strategic DMV branch: “I purposely picked a remote place, I went to the Enfield DMV … I carried with me my civil union document, but they didn’t even ask to see it.”

The next day, Rep. Lawlor forwarded a letter he’d received from the Office of Legislative Research, which said, “Pursuant to state law … DMV recognizes and accepts a civil union certificate … in the same way that it does a marriage certificate, divorce decree or probate court order … DMV’s [Web site] may not have been updated to show civil union certificates as valid documentation. However, this is an oversight.”

We, in turn, forwarded the letter to the future Moyer-Washingtons, who, as of press time, have not yet gone to the DMV, but promised to let us know if their rock rolls back downhill again.