How exactly do you become officially married legally?
November 9, 2011 4:53 PM   Subscribe

What is the difference between getting a marriage license and getting married? I mean, do you have to have a ceremony to be married? If so, why do you need a license to do it? Can you just get a license and call it good?

The fact that I don't know this makes me feel schtupid.
posted by Foam Pants to Law & Government (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I just went through all this. You need two things to be legally married (in the US, at least.)

1) A marriage license, obtainable from your state's Register of Deeds office and,

2) An officiant to legally marry you (no real ceremony needs to be included,) and to sign said license, along with two (YMMV) witnessses.

So, no, you don't need a ceremony, but you do need to have an officiant to sign off on your marriage. Most courthouses have someone available.
posted by InsanePenguin at 4:57 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

You don't have to have a ceremony, but someone has to sign the license. So you need an officiant of some sort, even if it's just the county clerk.
posted by nkknkk at 4:57 PM on November 9, 2011

Sorry, from your county's Register of Deeds office, not state's. That'd be a pain.
posted by InsanePenguin at 4:58 PM on November 9, 2011

You need an officiant in most states. PA and a couple-few other states have "self-uniting" marriage licenses were (AFAIK) the couple sign, and some witnesses sign, but there's no officiant. It comes out of the Quaker tradition.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:09 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

This varies from place to place.
Whether you need an officiant and who can serve as an officiant vary. Look up the rules for your area.

Also, the normal procedure is this:
1. get blank license (at courthouse or city hall etc.)(pre-requisites to get a blank license vary)
2. do ceremony (may be optional, see the rules for your area) and sign license (normally the 2 parties, the officiant, and some witness/es sign)
3. return signed license to courthouse or city hall etc.

Then the city or courthouse etc records the marriage and you can get a marriage certificate from them which says you are legally married. (You can later get copies of this like you would a birth or death certificate, when you need them for whatever - eg name changes, tax things, insurance things.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:26 PM on November 9, 2011

The license is needed, basically, for recordkeeping. Property rights, inheritance rights, tax rights, support liabilities, all sorts of legal things and statuses flow from being married. So the state issues a license, which is signed by someone authorized to sign it, who files it with the County Clerk so married people can more easily access those rights and the courts/state can properly administer them without too much trouble.

Also, states prohibit some sorts of marriages (between cousins, for instance, or people already married to someone else) and the license application helps enforce that.
posted by crush-onastick at 5:29 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

The fact that I don't know this makes me feel schtupid.

You need to travel to Pennsylvania to buy beer. After that you'll realize the fabric of society is 2% law and order and 98% weird rigamarole that's been kludged together over the years as people tried to pull a fast one. Consider common law marriage.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:37 PM on November 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm sure this varies by jurisdiction, but a friend just did this, and they needed get the license 48 hrs before the ceremony, be married within 60 days of its issuance.
posted by timsteil at 5:38 PM on November 9, 2011

Yeah, I don't know what the deal in your state is, but in mine there is a 3-day cooling-off period after you get the license before you can actually get married; you need to bring two witnesses to actually get the license; and you need an officiant. The officiant can be anyone you recognize as having the authority to marry you, so it could be your neighbor Bob, even if he hasn't been ordained in the Universal Life Church.
posted by adamrice at 6:32 PM on November 9, 2011

Our officiant signed our license before the ceremony and said, "Well, you're married now, do you still want to do the whole wedding part?" (We did.) Then we had to take the signed license to the courthouse for filing afterward. This was in Missouri.
posted by something something at 6:38 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Please note that no state has magic words, just varying requirements for officiants. So whoever it is just has to sign the license. Return it by whatever means requested. Boom, married.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:39 PM on November 9, 2011

So, if it is not obvious from the answers above, the license isn't "activated" until it is properly signed by the right people (some combination of recognized officiant, the people getting married and witnesses). So just getting the paper doesn't make you married yet. If you don't follow through then you aren't married and after 60 days (or whatever) the license expired unused.
posted by metahawk at 7:18 PM on November 9, 2011

My Russian Orthodox priest didn't care if we had a license or not. So we didn't get one. 25 years later--not a big worry in my life.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:41 PM on November 9, 2011

All of the above answers may be true in the answerers' respective states. Call your local office of vital records.
posted by freshwater at 8:32 PM on November 9, 2011

Yes, it's for the state's recordkeeping. It partly grows out of the tradition of marriages being performed by religious authorities but recognized by the state. In general it proves you cleared particular hurdles (not too closely related, not already married, over 18; Mississippi and Montana still require blood tests to prove you don't have syphilis, which used to be a pretty widespread requirement). Before Loving v. Virginia, marriage licenses would also prevent "miscegnation" marriages between people of disparate races in some states. Until quite recently, they'd also ensure you were of different genders, though that barrier to equality is falling as well.

You can only contract common law marriages in 11 states anymore.

There are three things that must happen with the license as far as the state is concerned: You must GET the license, at which point generally both parties appear before the county official in question, provide identification, answer some questions, and get the license. You must EXECUTE the license, which may be done by various civil or religious officials. You don't have to have a ceremony but most people have at least a little something, even if it's the $10 jobbie before the judge. And then you must FILE the completed license with the state so it knows you're married. If you just get the license but don't file it, or get and execute but don't file it, the state doesn't know you're married and it's a world of hassle. I officiated a friend's wedding not too long ago and the information that comes with the license has a bunch of DIRE WARNINGS about not filing it within 30 days or the wedding or whatever.

The state is most interested in GET and FILE, generally -- they want you to prove you're not a bigamist and that you're 18 and so on, and then return them a record they can file for future reference. They don't much care how you EXECUTE. Religious groups (and your parents) generally care about the executing part.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:41 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

The state is most interested in GET and FILE, generally -- they want you to prove you're not a bigamist and that you're 18 and so on, and then return them a record they can file for future reference. They don't much care how you EXECUTE.

The State is also interested in the FEE.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:51 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can't be a same-sex couple in most states.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:52 PM on November 9, 2011

Consider common law marriage.

Actually... don't. Common law marriage in the United States has largely been abolished by statute in most jurisdictions. That link has a list of the few states that do still allow it--eleven plus DC--but even in those that do recognize it, it's increasingly disfavored. A common thread is that the couple must publicly hold themselves out as husband and wife, and some states impose a time requirement on top of that.

The legal mechanism for getting married varies from state to state, but in general, it requires the procurement of a license, an officiant, and witnesses. The "ceremony" can be as formal or informal as the couple desires, provided there are enough people and someone there with the legal authority to sign the license.
posted by valkyryn at 7:15 AM on November 10, 2011

I am in NH. I did not need extra witnesses.

Our officiant works at city hall, so she performed the service (which was not necessary), signed the license (which we had obtained a week beforehand) and brought it back for us. A week later we picked up a marriage certificate.
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 8:50 AM on November 10, 2011

If it makes you feel better Valkyryn, I was pointing out common law marriage more as a long strange trip rather than suggesting it as any sort of plan.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:32 AM on November 10, 2011

My husband and I got a marriage license with no ceremony (do you know how many video games you could buy with the money you spend on a wedding?!) and here's how it went down in Texas:

We went to some government building to do paperwork. This included a pamphlet on how you should be sure you want to get married, with helpful tips like, "Do activities together" and "Talk to each other every day." Seriously. And they didn't mean "talk" like have a purposeful talking session, they meant that you should have basic interactions. This pamphlet was the most entertaining thing about the process.

Then we had to find a judge who would say the official stuff and sign things. I forget how I looked this up, either Google or the goverment building gave us a list. I had to call and ask the judge. He was super nice and friendly and loves officiating marriages, told us his rates (weekends were like $100ish, weekdays $60?) and we opted for a weekday because that was a VIDEO GAME'S WORTH of price difference.

We went to the courthouse at the time scheduled. Our brother in law came along but a witness was not required, or the judge counted or something. The law varies from state to state. Each judge can add a few lines of their personal choosing to the stuff they say, as long as it's clear it's not legal stuff ir something. He made us repeat some really sweet stuff and I BAWLED and could barely do it. Then he signed stuff, and maybe we did, then we was MARRIED. We were in his office for like, five minutes.

We got our marriage certificate in the mail shortly after because I guess it had to be processed.
posted by Nattie at 9:50 AM on November 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

You need an officiant in most states. PA and a couple-few other states have "self-uniting" marriage licenses were (AFAIK) the couple sign, and some witnesses sign, but there's no officiant. It comes out of the Quaker tradition.

Happily, I just got married using a self-uniting license. In PA, it's only available from Philadelphia county, but can be used anywhere in the state; I believe it's also available in Wisconsin and Colorado. The description above is essentially it: we applied for (and paid for) and received the license. Then we executed by both signing it with two witnesses (we used our mothers because, well, mothers!) and sent a copy back to the city. We were officially married once it was signed, and sending the copy back to the city then registered the whole thing so there's a record that could be referred to if necessary.

If we had applied for and received the license, but had allowed it to lapse without executing it, then we wouldn't have been married. The license lets you get married, but it has to be used to actually be married.
posted by The Michael The at 5:19 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maine is pretty straighforward* about it.

* Sadly, same-sex marriage was overturned.
posted by theora55 at 5:37 PM on November 10, 2011

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