Photograph: Rosy and Shaun Photography
Wedding cakes. Caterers. Photographers, guest lists, family seating arrangements — and don’t forget the in-laws. When it comes to planning your wedding, it seems like there is a never-ending stream of tasks, all demanding a bit of your attention.
Your marriage license and marriage certificate shouldn’t be one of those tasks.
If you’re stuck in the loop of trying to figure out what in the world it means to get your marriage license, keep reading — this article is for you.
What is a Marriage License?
A marriage license is a legal document that you need to get married.
You need this license prior to getting married. Think of a marriage license as a permit to get married — you need the license to get married, but once you have it, you’re still not officially married.
Just to be clear: no marriage license, no marriage. Simple as that!
What is a Marriage Certificate?
A marriage certificate, on the other hand, is an official document issued by the government that merely proves you are legally married. As a general rule, you can expect to receive a copy of your marriage certificate a few weeks after you submit your marriage license — more on that later.
Once you’re married, your marriage certificate really shines. You’ll use your marriage certificate to change your name, share medical benefits, file taxes, and even apply for a major loan or mortgage (depending on the state).
Wait, What’s the “Workflow” Here?
A good question — the path to legal marriage starts with you and your marriage license. You’ll need to:
- Set a time and date for your wedding and wedding ceremony.
- Obtain your marriage license (most often from your local county courthouse)
- Hold your wedding ceremony
- Sign your marriage license (applicable to most states)
- Turn in the completed marriage license to the county (usually the wedding’s officiant handles this)
- Voilà — you’re married.
- Receive a copy of your marriage certificate (this can take up to a few weeks, depending on your area).
Okay, What About Paperwork, Forms, and Other Legal Requirements?
First off, you’ll want to note that marriage licenses expire. On top of that, you need to apply for your marriage license in the county in which you are actually getting married.
For most states, marriage licenses expire anywhere from 30 to 90 days after issuance. Check here for your state’s own nitty-gritty specifics — some states require blood tests or even have required waiting periods.
Applying For Your Marriage License
Remember — local requirements may differ from what you read online. Always, always, always check with your local county or state office (it’s 2019, they better have a website) to make sure you have everything you need.
As a general rule, however, have the following on-hand when you make the trip out the county courthouse:
- Government-issued identification. A driver’s license, birth certificate, military I.D., alien registration card, and current passport work well here. You may or may not need a birth certificated to obtain your marriage license — not a bad idea to chuck it in the bag anyways.
- Parental information. Have your parents’ names (original, full birth names), birth dates, and state(s) of birth available. If your parents are no longer with you, the date of passing is necessary for most states.
- Evidence of the legal dissolution of any previous marriage (if applicable).Marrying multiple people is a big no-no in the United States. If you’ve had any previous marriages—even if you’re divorced or have a legal annulment—you will likely need to submit evidence of the legal dissolution of the marriage.
- Payment for the nominal fee. Most counties require some nominal wedding fee in order to process the license application. This can range anywhere from $5 (Oklahoma, if you complete premarital counseling) to $120 (Wisconsin).
- Parent, if you’re under the age of 18.
- A witness or witnesses. Some states—California, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, and others—require the signature (or mere presence) of one or more witnesses in order to complete the marriage license application or if you plan on having the wedding ceremony at the courthouse.
- Blood test. Check here for a list of states that require a blood test prior to marriage. Hint: it’s only Montana, Mississippi, and Washington D.C.
Note: It’s not uncommon to apply for and receive your marriage license all on the same day. However, some states have mandated waiting periods that can range up to 5 days! Check your local state requirements before making any hard plans.
What’s the Procedure For Applying For a Marriage License?
Once you’ve got all your paperwork lined up, make an appointment (some counties accept walk-ins) at your local county courthouse. Head on down and follow the instructions they give you.
Tip: Both you and your partner need to appear together, in person, to apply.
If you are having the marriage ceremony performed at the courthouse, your witnesses will need to be there to sign the license. If you are simply applying for your license, you will likely not need witnesses (check your local county requirements).
Typically, you’ll submit all the paperwork, receive your license, and be free to get married. Simple!
What About My Marriage Certificate?
Let’s fast-forward a bit, straight to after the wedding ceremony. You’re married — congratulations! In a few days or weeks, you’ll receive in the mail (or need to pick up in person) a very official-looking “Marriage Certificate.”
This document is the official, legal record of your marriage. And no: the fancy, ceremonial marriage “certificate” you might have signed at your wedding does not count. Your true marriage certificate is issued by the state.
Information vs Authorized (Certified) Marriage Certificates
This is where things might get a little tricky.
An authorized (or certified) copy of your marriage certificate may only be issued to an “authorized person” (you or your partner). This official copy establishes the identity of the registrant. An informational copy is just that—informational—and technically cannot be used to establish identity.
In practical terms, keep a few copies of your certified, authorized marriage certificate on hand and you’ll be fine. You’ll want a certified copy for legal use (medical benefits, mortgages, and so on).
You can apply for additional certified copies from your local county records office for a nominal fee.
The entire process might seem a little daunting, but it’s not that bad. Once you have your paperwork in order, you’re golden. Head on down to the courthouse and apply for your marriage license. Once you have your license in hand, you’re free to get married (either at the courthouse or at a location of your own choosing).
And the marriage certificate? It’ll come in the mail within a few weeks.
Don’t stress too much about your marriage license — quite a few people have gotten married in the past, after all. Follow the above guide and enjoy many years of happy marriage!