By Julia Merante ’23
“I just want my last name back,” is the sentence that I have heard most throughout my summer. I realize that some readers might be confused as to why this phrase frequents my conversations. It is because I have had the privilege of being in a fellowship in the civil unit at the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo this summer following my first year at the University at Buffalo School of Law.
In the Family Justice division, I serve mostly in matrimonials. Put simply, this means that I process paperwork and I consult clients that wish to get divorced from their spouses. Statistically speaking, I assist mostly women as I also aid in the domestic violence unit. With this, most of the clients that I have the pleasure of working with are wives who want to leave their husbands. Thus, the opening sentence above comes to life as they want their maiden names back.
There are several formalities that I must go through with these divorce clients including statements of net worth, titles to houses and cars, and many financial affidavits. This is because those going through a divorce may qualify for alimony, child support, half of their spouse’s retirement account, and other property. However, most women that I help with paperwork breeze past this financial section. They do not care about his money, and they don’t want access to his pension or 401K even though they have the legal right to it. They don’t want maintenance or spousal support — all they want is their last name back.
The first time I heard this sentence as a novel intern back in May, I didn’t know how to respond. But then, I started hearing it over and over. And now, it is a regular occurrence in any standard phone consultation that I have with a female client. “I just want my last name back.” The more I heard this phrase, the more it spoke to me. The more I understood that this isn’t about money or property – this is about identity. These women want that piece of themselves back. Although they can’t get back their time spent in the marriage, and they can’t erase the bruises he might have left on their skin, there is one thing that they can control: their surname.
This idea of a name is something that, although not of monetary value or related to physical health, is invaluable. This sentence has become the best part of my fellowship because it is something that I can tangibly impact — it is something that the law can actively do to help regain someone’s identity. This is a way for these women to gain back some form of control in their lives. The law cannot turn back time, but this simple right of assuming your original last name makes it feel like the law can. That notion of utilizing the law to help someone feel like themselves again has been the most amazing realization during my time at Legal Aid.
I would like to thank the generous donors that allowed me to have this opportunity and impact. It has been nothing short of amazing, and intense in the best way possible. I express gratitude from both myself, and from the women that are ecstatic to have their last names back. Thank you.
Name: Julia Merante, ‘23
Name of Fellowship: Buffalo Human Rights Center Summer Fellowship Award
Placement: Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo
Location: Buffalo, NY
One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “The law cannot turn back time, but this simple right of assuming your original last name makes it feel like the law can. That notion of utilizing the law to help someone feel like themselves again has been the most amazing realization during my time at Legal Aid. “