MIAMI - A newly married South Florida man who opted to take his wife's last name is fighting the state's Department of Motor Vehicles after it suspended his driving licence on grounds of fraud.
Real estate investor Lazaro Sopena offered to change his name following his 2011 marriage to Hanh Dinh in order to help his wife's Vietnamese family perpetuate their family surname.
Shortly after their marriage, Lazaro Dinh obtained a new passport and Social Security card and changed his bank account and credit cards before applying to update his drivers licence.
"It was an act of love. I have no particular emotional ties to my last name," said Dinh, 40, who was born in Cuba and came to the United States at the age of 11 in 1984.
His wife, Hanh Dinh, 32, has four sisters and came to the U.S. in 1990, after a family odyssey involving living in refugee camps and being separated from her father for 7 years.
Lazaro Dinh was initially issued a new licence after presenting his marriage certificate at his local DMV office and paying a $20 fee, just as newly married women are required to do when they adopt their husband's name.
"It was easy. When the government issues you a new passport you figure you're fine," he said.
More than a year later Dinh received a letter from Florida's DMV last December accusing him of "obtaining a driving licence by fraud," and advising him that his licence would be suspended at the end of the month. Ironically, it was addressed to Lazaro Dinh.
"I thought it was a mistake," he said.
But when he called the state DMV office in Tallahassee he said he was told he had to go to court first in order to change his name legally, a process that takes several months and has a $400 filing fee.
When he explained he was changing his name due to marriage, he was told 'that only works for women,'" he said.
"Apparently the state of Florida clings to the out-dated notion that treats women as an extension of a man," said Lazaro's lawyer, Spencer Kuvin, with Cohen & Kuvin in West Palm Beach. While it was unusual for a man to seek to be considered an extension on his wife, Dinh's case raised important issues for gay marriage, he noted.
"If Lazaro isn't allowed to change his name, what is going to happen when a gay couple seeks a name change?"
Only a few states have made their marriage name change policy gender neutral, Kuvin said. In Florida's case it has no law, although the DMV's website does not specify gender.
According to Kuvin, 9 states enable a man to change his name upon marriage: California, New York, Hawaii, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Oregon, Iowa, Georgia and North Dakota.
The Florida DMV did not respond to a request for comment.
Following a DMV hearing, Dinh was issued a Final Order on Jan. 14 confirming that his licence had been properly suspended for fraud.
He is now appealing that order but has not dared get behind the wheel.
"I don't understand. I'm being treated like a highway criminal," said Dinh, who said he has a perfect driving record and now is struggling to carry out his job, begging his wife and friends for rides.