Family Law

Do I Need a License to Get Married?

By Joseph Pandolfi, Retired Judge
Learn whether you need a license in order to get married.

Taking the Traditional Marriage Route

If you’re planning on getting married in a civil or religious ceremony, then yes, you’re going to need a marriage license. Every state (and the District of Columbia) requires one.

Although each state’s requirements might differ, the procedure for getting a marriage license is fairly standard. Applications are normally available through your county or municipal clerk. You may be able to start the process online, on your state or county website, but you’ll likely have to go to the clerk’s office to finalize the application. Some states require the couple to appear together and may instruct you to bring a witness.

People sometimes enter into marriage for fraudulent reasons. States are aware of this, so be prepared to provide quite a bit of information when applying for a license. Every clerk’s office will demand proof of identity with a driver’s license, passport, or state or federal identification card. They’ll also need your social security number.

On the application itself, typically each of you will provide:

  • your full name, as listed on your birth certificate
  • your current last name, if different than your birth name
  • your current address
  • your date of birth and state or country of birth
  • your father and mother’s birth names and places of birth, and
  • the number of prior marriages (or civil unions), if any, and possibly proof of how the prior relationship ended (for example, divorce or dissolution papers, or death certificate).

State marriage license applications vary, so don’t be surprised if you need to provide even more information than listed above. This could include items such as your education level, your sex and race, and whether either or both spouses will use a different last name after marriage. There may also be questions concerning whether you and your prospective spouse are related (to ensure you’re not close blood relatives), or if either of you is under the supervision of a guardian or conservator (to ascertain mental competency to enter into the marriage).

It would be wise to check in advance with the clerk’s office, or on your state’s website, to determine exactly what information and documents you’ll need to meet the license requirements. A little preparation can save you time and aggravation down the road.

When you receive the approved marriage license, remember that it’s only valid for a specific period of time. Once again, this varies from state to state, and can range from 20 days to a year. Also be aware that, in some states, there’s a mandatory delay before issuing the license after you’ve completed the application. For example, in Pennsylvania, it’s three days. A few states require a short waiting period between the date the license is issued and the date of the wedding—for example, couples must wait 24 hours in Delaware and 72 hours in Texas.

Can You Be Married Without a License?

It may sound like semantics, but you don’t have to “get” married to “be” married. The distinction rests in the concept of “common law” marriage, which can exist without your ever having obtained a marriage license.

Let’s assume you’re living with someone, but you’ve never formalized the relationship. You both consider yourselves married, and you hold yourselves out to the public as being a married couples. For example, you open bank accounts together, or perhaps you refer to each other as my “spouse,” when in a group. Maybe one of you assumed the other’s last name. These are all public expressions of an “intent” to be married, a core element of common law marriage.

If you meet these requirements, along with your state’s other marriage eligibility criteria, like being of a certain age, not being married to someone else, and being of sound mind, you may be in a common law marriage. Check this article to see if your state still recognizes common law marriage.

If you have questions about your state’s marriage laws, consider consulting an experienced family law attorney in your area.

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