Experts break down the basics.

bride and groom link arms during wedding ceremony

While you're busy planning every detail of your ceremony and reception, from the big-day music and bridesmaids' gifts to your reception chairs and escort card display, don't forget about the one element of the day that makes your union official: The marriage license. This state-issued document is so critical that in some states, performing a marriage ceremony without one is a crime that could land your officiant with major fines or even jail time, says Reverend Laura C. Cannon, president of the International Association of Professional Wedding Officiants, who has performed more than 1,000 weddings. "It's easy for couples to think this isn't a big deal," she says, "but it really is."

Here, she breaks down the three must-know rules around the marriage license.

When to Get Your Marriage License

The rules for marriage licenses vary widely by state, so you'll need to check the regulations for the state where you are getting married (remember that if you're having a destination wedding, this may mean a different state than the one where you live). Look for two pieces of information: The waiting period and the expiration date. Some states have a mandatory waiting period, which varies; in New York, it's 24 hours; in Maryland, 48 hours; in Wisconsin, six days. Many other states-including California, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Connecticut-allow you to get married immediately. The second key fact-the expiration date-gives you a guideline for how long you can wait before getting married. In Oklahoma, the license expires after ten days; in Hawaii, 30 days; in Maine, 90 days; and in Nevada, a year.

What to Do with Once You Have It

Once you and your partner have the license, you have to do only two things: Keep it in a safe place (Cannon recommends storing it alongside your rings) and remember to bring it to the ceremony. If you forget it, you have two options: Either send a speedy groomsman or a willing family member to pick it up and return it before starting the ceremony or-if you left it behind for a destination wedding or neglected to file for it at all-have your officiant tweak your ceremony so that it's a commitment ceremony instead of a marriage. "From a legal standpoint, at least in my area, it's perfectly fine to perform a commitment ceremony, as long as no one is misleading the guests and using verbiage that would signify that it's a marriage ceremony," says Cannon, who performs weddings in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. "This involves removing all instances of the world 'marriage' and 'husband/wife' from the ceremony script and rewriting any parts that could be misleading to the guests."

What to Do with It After the Ceremony

After performing the ceremony, the officiant will sign the license and file it with the state, so it's out of your hands. But if you've chosen a friend or family member to perform your ceremony, check with the state to make sure you're clear on the rules of who can sign the license and what kind of authorization they need to do so. "In some places, officiants need to be authorized to perform marriages before they marry anyone," says Cannon. "Some couples end up calling us after they unknowingly hosted an illegal ceremony because the friend that performed their marriage wasn't actually authorized to do so, and they only realized later that they weren't legally married."


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