Everything you need to know about making your marriage legal.
Credit: Bryan Gardner

As unromantic as it may sound, marriage is a legal union that must be sanctioned by the state where it takes place. A marriage license is required in every state, no exception, because it proves that you're legally allowed to be married in the state in which you wish to wed. Only once you have met certain conditions, which can include submitting proof of identity and age, taking a blood test, and paying a fee (typically $50 or less), will the state issue your marriage license, which then allows you to get married (meaning, to have that ceremony and reception you've been planning for months). Bottom line: if you don't have a marriage license because you didn't apply for one, did not apply in time, or did not meet the requirements, you will not be legally married following your big-day festivities.

10 Things You Must Discuss Before You Get Married


Where to apply depends on the state, county, and country where you will be getting married (not the one in which you currently live). The document is typically issued at city hall, a county clerk's office, or a marriage-license bureau. Start the process by calling the county clerk's office in the county where your ceremony will take place. Ask if the application needs to be made in the town or county where you will marry, or if a license issued anywhere in the state is valid. You'll also want to find out whether both you and the groom need to apply in person, or if just one of you will suffice. If you are planning to wed far from where you live, ask if you can apply by mail (occasionally, online applications are even available), or if someone else can apply for you, and who that proxy can be (a relative, friend, or member of the clergy, for example).


Couples typically provide photo identification, such as a passport, birth certificate, or driver's license to prove their identities, while all United States citizens who marry domestically are required to provide a social security card so that their public records can be linked to their specific identity. However, a person who intends to be married may not be required to provide documentation if it is not applicable. For example, if you or your spouse is from another country, you are still allowed to marry legally in most states.


You and your spouse will start by filling in the basics (your name, current address, birth country; birthday, information pertaining to your parents; your social security number, etc.), and most importantly, your marriage history. If you were married before, you must list all prior marriages, including your previous spouse's-or spouses'-full name, the date the divorce decree was granted, and the city, state, and country where the divorce was issued. All divorces, annulments, and dissolutions must be finalized before you apply for a new marriage license, and you may even be asked to produce the final divorce decree. In short, when you sign the affidavit, you are making a sworn statement that there are no legal impediments to the marriage.


Like any legal document, you need to think carefully before you sign your marriage license! Once you've completed and submitted your marriage license, the name listed as your married surname is legally binding. The only way to change it after the fact is to remarry (repeating all of the steps outlined in this article), which would be a huge bummer.

To really drive the point home, most offices explicitly state that updating your name on a marriage license after getting married is not considered "correcting an error," although for other changes, there often is a free amendment process. In other words, no amount of begging is going to work in your favor.

Now, here's how to ace it: Because you apply for your marriage license before you marry, sign the document with your maiden name, or, for the groom, his current name. The application will include a place for you to indicate whether or not you'll take a new last name, and that's where you'll sign the name you want to go by once you're pronounced husband and wife (see below for specifics). If you're keeping your maiden name, use the signature you've been using for years. Basically, your marriage certificate will state both your maiden name and your eventual married name, though if you elect to change your surname, your new name isn't legally effective until after your wedding ceremony. You are not allowed to alter your first or middle name on your marriage license, but here are your options for your married last name: the surname of either spouse; any former surname of either spouse; a name combining into a single surname, all or a segment of, the pre-marriage surname, or any former surname, of each spouse; or a combination surname separated by a hyphen, provided that each part of such combination surname is the pre-marriage surname, or any former surname, of each of the spouses.

How to Change Your Name After Marriage


After signing, you will take the signed marriage license with you and hold onto it until the wedding ceremony. Most states require that you wait at least 24 hours between receiving a license and saying I do-but don't wait too long. In New York, for example, a marriage license is only valid for 60 days. In some cases, you can apply for a free but cumbersome "judicial waver," which requests that a judge waive the wait period or extend it. A safe bet is to sign your marriage license on the morning of your rehearsal dinner, about 36 hours before your celebration, because you'll be in the state that needs to legalize your marriage; you also won't be as likely to misplace-or to forget to pack-your marriage license if you tighten the timeframe.

While we're on the subject, if you do in fact lose your marriage license, you can request a duplicate in order to get married for around $25 per copy (costs vary). Return to the office that issued the original marriage license and complete an affidavit.


A marriage license becomes certified once whoever performs the wedding ceremony (the officiant) signs it. That person then mails it to the county clerk's office (the one where you first applied for a license). The county clerk then certifies the document with an official seal or embossment, places a copy on file as a permanent record, and mails the original to your home address (arriving about two weeks after I dos). The then certified "marriage certificate" proves legal marriage status to any government agency. In short: while marriage licenses serve as proof that a couple is legally entitled to be married, marriage certificates prove that the marriage took place. Don't confuse either with a document issued by a religious institution (read: church or synagogue) that commemorates your marriage. Many times that certificate features gorgeous calligraphy and artwork, and while it's lovely, it is a keepsake, not a legal document.


If you did change your name, the first step is to notify the local Social Security Administration office so that its records and your social security card reflect the update (that's free). Your marriage certificate will serve as proof. Next, request multiples of your certified marriage certificate (not copies!) for all your official name changes; some places accept photocopies, while others must see a document with an original government seal.


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