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Why Germany is changing its complicated rules around double surnames

Rachel Loxton
Rachel Loxton - [email protected]
Why Germany is changing its complicated rules around double surnames
A father in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein plays with his six month old son. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Büttner

The German government is changing the rules around surnames to give more freedom to families and some ethnic groups in particular. Here's what you need to know.


Under the current law, married couples in Germany are not able to choose a common double-barrelled name with their two surnames.

But the German coalition government, made up of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP), is pushing forward with a reform of what it sees as the "very restrictive" German naming law. More diverse realities of life make this necessary, according to a bill that the Bundestag passed on Friday. 

The bill aims to give married couples and their children more freedom of choice when deciding on and changing their surnames. It will allow both partners to take on a double surname, with or without a hyphen, and for their children to take that name too.

What are the current naming rules?

They are complicated. According to the German Civil Code (BGS), married couples should generally choose a common surname, the so-called married name or "Ehename" which is used by both spouses at the time of marriage or later. If the spouses do not choose one, they continue to use the name they had at the time of the marriage. The married name can be either the birth name or the current surname of one of the spouses.

The spouse whose surname does not become the married name can add his or her previous name or birth name with a hyphen in front or behind the married name. However, the spouses cannot choose a double name from their two surnames. This means that one spouse must effectively give up their previous surname.

A family sit at a lake.

A family sit at a lake. Germany is set to change the rules around surnames. Image by Eva Mospanova from Pixabay

Exceptions apply to divorced or widowed people who have a double name from a previous marriage and remarry. In this case, the double name from the previous marriage can become the so-called married double name of the new marriage.

READ ALSO: What it's like to get married in Germany

For married parents with a common married surname, the child is given this as their last name when they're born. If the parents do not have a married name, a decision must be made at birth as to which birth name the child should be given. Whether the parents have a married name or not, the child can only be given the surname of one of the parents as their birth name. A double name as the child's birth name is not allowed. 


If parents divorce, the child is still bound to the married name and therefore the birth name. This means that the child may have to bear a different surname to the parent they have their main residence with. A change of name - reverting to the surname before the marriage - is possible for the divorced couple, but only in exceptional cases and if this is "necessary for the child's welfare".

What are the planned changes?

Married couples who only want to choose a single married name can continue to do so.

What is new, however, is that in future (if the law gets the green light), both people in a married couple will be able to have double names as married names - usually connected by a hyphen, but also without a hyphen if the couple declare this. "The naming law therefore fulfils the social need for such a choice," says the draft bill put together by the government. 


The double-barrelled surname should also become a child's birth name by default if the parents have not decided on a birth name.

In the event of divorce, children should be able to follow the name change of one parent (if the parent chooses to do so). This should apply to both underage and adult children and is primarily intended for those who, after the divorce, live predominantly with the parent who has taken the married name.

READ ALSO: 10 things you need to know about German weddings

Which changes are aimed at ethnic groups?

The German government wants to recognise the self-determination and inclusion of people in cultures where surnames are traditionally changed according to gender.

Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) cited minorities such as the Sorbs, Danes and Frisians as examples.

For the Sorbian ethnic group, for instance, it will be possible to add the suffix "-owa" and "-ina" to women's names under the new rules. 


The Frisian minority will have new opportunities to reflect their tradition and origins in derived names - for example, using the surname "Jansen" if the father's first name is "Jan".

Naming according to Danish tradition, which takes into account the surname of a close relative, will also be possible. 

The changes were approved by MPs in the Bundestag on Friday. The law will likely go through the Bundesrat, which represents the states, and if all goes to the plan, the law is scheduled to come into force at the beginning of May next year.


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