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In some cultures, particularly in the Anglophone West, wives often change their surnames to that of the husband upon getting married.

For some, this is a controversial practice, due to its tie to the historical doctrine of coverture and to the historically subordinated roles of wives.

In Middle English it had the form wif, and in Old English wīf, "woman or wife".

However, a woman in a so-called common law marriage may describe herself as a common law wife, de facto wife, or simply a wife.

Those seeking to advance gender neutrality may refer to both marriage partners as "spouses", and many countries and societies are rewording their statute law by replacing "wife" and "husband" with "spouse". The status of a wife may be terminated by divorce, annulment, or the death of a spouse.

In particular, the control of marital property, inheritance rights, and the right to dictate the activities of children of the marriage, have typically been given to male marital partners.

However, this practice was curtailed to a great deal in many countries in the twentieth century, and more modern statutes tend to define the rights and duties of a spouse without reference to gender.

In some cultures, the termination of the status of wife made life itself meaningless, as in the case of those cultures that practiced sati, a funeral ritual within some Asian communities, in which a recently widowed woman committed suicide by fire, typically on the husband's funeral pyre.

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