Nearly three years after they tied the knot, a Marina del Rey couple can finally share a name — the wife’s that is.
When Michael Bijon first met his wife Diana he had the surname Buday, but in a non-traditional move, he vowed to take her last name when they got married in August 2005.
The commitment was a way to honor her father’s significance in his life and to continue her family name, as her father did not have any sons, he said.
“It was a symbolic gesture, but it’s also very real for us,” Michael Bijon said of the effort to take his wife’s last name. “It’s about what our children will be named, about starting a new family on our own terms. For us, it was very traditional.”
But after committing to changing his name, Bijon didn’t realize how much of a hassle it was going to be for a man to do something that so many women easily do when they get married.
“This was an easy choice for Diana and me to make — I never imagined the state would make it so difficult,” Michael Bijon said.
At the time Bijon looked into adopting his wife’s name, men were required to pay court fees of more than $300 and advertise the name change in a newspaper, while women choosing to take their husband’s name are required only to pay a $50 to $80 marriage license fee, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Bijon has said that it wasn’t the money that concerned him in the process, but the “principle of families being able to make their own decisions.” While it is common for a wife to take her husband’s surname, Bijon’s effort was viewed at as unusual.
The couple sought the help of the ACLU of Southern California to see that changes be implemented to make the rules for a husband wanting to take his wife’s last name the same as for a wife taking her husband’s.
At the time the couple began the effort, only six states — Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York and North Dakota — recognized a statutory right for a man to take his wife’s last name.
The ACLU of Southern California and the firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy filed a federal lawsuit in December 2006 challenging the marriage name rules in California and alleging sex-based discrimination in the issuance of California marriage and driver’s licenses.
Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU attorney who represented the Bijons, said that at the time Bijon attempted to change his name California law made it virtually impossible for men trying to do the same thing.
The ACLU settled the lawsuit with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and the Department of Health Services Monday, May 5th, allowing Bijon to officially be recognized with his wife’s surname on a state driver’s license. The Marina del Rey resident signed the paperwork for the new license with his wife by his side at a DMV branch in Santa Monica.
“Women have fought for so long for equal rights and it feels like this is part of that right,” Diana Bijon said.
The settlement agreements have helped change the state marriage application so that men and women are treated similarly when changing their name to their spouse’s and allow the couple to choose whichever name it wants, Rosenbaum said.
“It removes the last vestige of discrimination in California family law and means that husbands and wives are equal partners in the eyes of the law,” Rosenbaum said of the settlement. “These settlements dispose of the rule in California that the male surname is the marital name to the same trash bin where dowries were once tossed out. California now has a marriage license for the 21st century, not the 15th century.”
As a result of the settlement agreements, DMV personnel will receive additional training in how to follow policy to help husbands, wives and domestic partners change their names on their driver’s licenses, according to the ACLU. The Department of Health Services has also begun using a new marriage license application form that requires the same information from both the husband and wife.
Rosenbaum also noted how the lawsuit influenced a new state law, the California Name Equality Act, which is scheduled to take effect next year and will guarantee the rights of both married couples and registered domestic partners to choose their own names.
“I think it’s a really good settlement and the legislation is exciting as well because it changes the requirements for both heterosexual and same-sex couples,” said Milbank firm attorney Hannah Cannom.
While it took longer than expected for the Bijons to share their name as a married couple, Rosenbaum said their ambition was far beyond simply getting a new title.
“They knew they were fighting for something bigger than their family surname,” he said. “They were making an advance for all men and women in California.”