As a law professor, Tobias Helms rarely receives emails from citizens. Until two years ago. He and six other experts had just presented proposals for a reform of naming rights. “Mostly couples wrote to me who both want to keep their surnames, but at the same time would like a connection through their names,” says the expert in family and inheritance law.
The solution would be a double name. Actually. But the partners are called Meyer and Sönke, for example, after marriage only one of the two can be called Sönke-Meyer or Meyer-Sönke. And: They are not allowed to pass the double name on to their children. A circumstance that the traffic light wants to change according to the coalition agreement.
Germany would thereby draw level with most European countries, for example with Denmark: If a German couple marries there and acquires the “real” double name, the Federal Republic already recognizes it; this is required by the case law of the European Court of Justice in the sense of freedom of movement.
“Many foreign partners already both have the double name in Germany because their home law allows it,” says Helms. On the other hand, the authorities often do not yet recognize double names that were acquired outside the EU. “It’s bizarre for the commoner.”
Helms believes that the fact that naming rights are so rigid in Germany is due to their historical origins. “It used to be simple: the woman acquired her husband’s name when she married. Married children had the same name as their father.” In 1957, women were given the right to continue using their surname after marriage for the first time – initially only as a second digit in a double name.
Since then, equality has progressed. According to a 2018 study by the Society for the German Language, in 2016 three quarters of women still took their husband’s name at marriage. Of the 20,000 marriages studied, only one in 16 men took his wife’s surname. In 12 percent of the cases, both kept their own surnames. Eight percent chose a double name, with the man adopting it only twelve percent of the time.
According to the Saxony Ministry of Justice, most heterosexual couples choose the father’s surname for their children. According to a spokeswoman, the previous ban on real double names “actually leads to indirect discrimination based on gender” because anyone who wants to have a common surname has to choose one. This is one of the reasons why the justice ministers of the federal states, on the initiative of Saxony and Thuringia, have spoken out in favor of liberalizing naming rights.
Federal Minister of Justice Marco Buschmann (FDP) said to WELT: “The decision of the Ministers of Justice Conference to reform the naming law means tailwind for our project. I am confident that we will be able to present a convincing concept for modern naming rights this year.” Katrin Helling-Plahr, spokeswoman for judicial policy for the FDP in the Bundestag, considers it gratifying that “the countries governed by the Union are now also recognizing the need for reform”. because the Union has vehemently rejected reform in recent years.
But what exactly will the traffic light reform look like? New, long name chains should probably be prevented. Helling-Plahr advocates limiting the number of single names that can make up a double name to two. Meyer-Sönke should not become Meyer-Sönke-Kretschmer-Leandros in the next generation, even after the reform.
In addition to the real double name, Helge Limburg, legal policy spokesman for the Greens parliamentary group, would find a “merging of both married names based on the British model” “charming”. For example, the surnames James and Harrison can become Jamison in the UK. Sonja Eichwede, legal expert of the SPD, announces that the traffic light will “simplify and structure regulations in order to reduce bureaucracy for citizens, the administration and the courts”. So far, says lawyer Helms, naming rights are by far the most complex of his specialist areas.
Helling-Plahr also advocates discussing a proposal from the group of experts to which Helms belonged: it stipulates that a name change outside of marriage or divorce should be possible every ten years without reason. So far, there has to be an “important reason” in Germany. “Our proposal sounds radical at first and often raises eyebrows,” says Helms. However, it solved many problems.
Modifications of the surname would then simply be possible, as is usual in other languages. For example, according to Sorbian tradition, a certain ending is added to a woman’s name depending on her marital status – usually “-owa” for married women, “-ec” or “-ejc” for unmarried women.
Also, according to Helms, when someone wants to change their name because it sounds foreign or is difficult to spell, it’s not always recognized as an important reason. Or if an applicant wants to change their official name Alexej to the nickname Aljoscha.
There is an administrative regulation with reasons that are recognized as important. However, many cases are not entirely clear, and not every authority makes the same decision. From practice, the lawyer gets to know about a large number of disputes and lawsuits. “Of course, you shouldn’t be allowed to be called like a number or an object, a name has to have the quality of a name,” says Helms. “But apart from that, there is no public interest for me that outweighs the individual desire for a name as part of personal rights.” Changes of name without cause are already possible in England, Austria or the USA, in England even at any time.
CDU legal expert Günter Krings wants to stick to the fact that a change of name should only be possible for important reasons. Otherwise, a creditor may no longer be able to find the person who owes him money. “That would force legal traffic to switch to other criteria such as an identification number,” says Krings. “And I don’t want to live in a society where you recognize each other by a number and not by name.”
Helms cannot understand this objection: the state will digitize all documents in future anyway and identify them with a personal code. The lawyer is also not afraid that name changes could be used to enable or cover up crimes. “Criminals usually avoid authorities to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Why should it be any different with name changes?”
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