For a long time, the rules regarding surnames in the Netherlands were not too complex. Children from a legal marriage were given the father’s surname. Children born to unmarried mothers were given the mother’s surname. But a new law has changed this from 1 January 2024.
Let us go back in time… Until 1811, there were no formal guidelines regarding the use of surnames. Yes, many families already had a fixed surname back then. However, there were also families in certain regions or with a different religious or cultural background, who not yet had a fixed surname. This situation came to an end with the introduction of the civil registration in 1811. From that moment on, every resident of the Netherlands had to have a fixed surname. Those who did not yet have one could choose a surname (for himself and for his under-aged children). The new system put an end to the use of patronymics: the father’s first name used by a child as a kind of surname. Because the civil registration was introduced when the Netherlands was still part of the French Empire, it is often (erroneously) claimed that Napoleon invented the use of surnames.
How it was
For a long time, the rules were pretty clear. As mentioned earlier: children from a legal marriage were given the name of the father, otherwise they were given the name of the (unmarried) mother.
The rule was always (and still is) that every child was given a surname at birth and that this surname – except in exceptional situations – remained unchanged throughout the person’s life. Even a marriage changed nothing. After their marriage, women continued to keep their own names for the (Dutch) government. They could use their husband’s name in everyday use. The choice was clear: either just the man’s surname or a combination in which the man’s surname came first. For example: if Mr. Jansen married Mrs. De Jong, she could call herself Mrs. De Jong but also Mrs. Jansen-De Jong.
The existing situation saw a first change in 1998. From that moment on, parents could choose not to give their children the surname of the father, but that of the mother. It was mandatory to give the chosen surname to all children from that relationship.
The use of the partner’s name also changed over time. There are currently four options, after marriage. The person keeps their own surname, combines it with the spouse’s name (either before their own surname or after it) or uses the spouse’s name entirely. But again: this is only for daily use because the law does not change the person’s surname. Same example: Mr. Jansen marries Mrs. De Jong. Both can choose to use the following names: Jansen, Jansen-de Jong, De Jong-Jansen or De Jong.
What will change with the introduction of the new law on January 1, 2024? Well, it is now possible to give a child a double surname. In this case, a double surname means the use of both the father’s and the mother’s surname. However, the surnames are not separated by a dash (-) as is the case when using the partner’s name for married couples. Again, the example from above. Mr. Jansen marries Mrs. De Jong. From now on, they can give their children the surname: “Jansen de Jong” or “de Jong Jansen”. Here too, there is the choice to place either one or the other surname first.
The minister responsible for this legislation said: “Your last name is part of your identity. Your name says something about your family, your history and the people you belong to. This proposal increases parents’ freedom of choice. They can both express their bond with the child in the name.”
The use of a double surname is also possible in other countries. It is for example a centuries-old tradition in Spain. And now, the option also exists for the Netherlands.
This is a simplified representation of the proposals and changes. There are some situations where using double surnames is not so easy. Anyone who wants to know the precise regulations can read the relevant proposals (in Dutch).