Family Law

Getting a Background Check before Getting Married

Maybe you've heard the story in the news, or maybe it's happened to someone you know. Someone thinks she's found her lifelong mate or companion, marries him, and only then finds out about his past. She finds out things like he has a criminal conviction for sexual abuse, or he has kids from a prior marriage that he kept secret.

If you're thinking about getting married or are engaged to be married, you may want to consider getting a background check on your soon-to-be spouse. Of course, it's not being suggested that a background check be done by everyone. If you suspect something isn't quite right, or if you just want to be sure that she's everything she says she is, then you need to know what kind of information a background check can give you and how to go about getting one done.

Kinds of Background Information & Where It's Kept

There's all kinds of information you may want to know about your companion. Some of it's pretty is easy to find, and some it's not.

Prior Marriages and Divorces

This information might be important to you to for a variety of reasons. Was she ever married before, and if so, why was there a divorce? Are there children of the marriage, and does your partner have financial obligations like alimony or child support? Maybe he told you about the divorce, but you want to make sure it's been finalized so that you don't commit bigamy.

In many states, marriage and divorce records are public records and usually can be found in an office in the county where the marriage or divorce took place, most commonly a courthouse. Of course, to find these records on your own, you have to know exactly where the marriage or divorce took place. In other states, however, these records are kept confidential and you may not be able to gain access to them.

Criminal History

No one wants to find out after you're married that your spouse has criminal convictions for things like sexual abuse, spousal abuse, or drug trafficking. Unfortunately, it happens. So, performing a background check before you get married may spare you a lot of future unhappiness.

Most criminal records are public records, and like marriage and divorce records, are usually kept in courthouse or other local government office in the county or state where the criminal activity occurred. In most states, juveniles who've been convicted of crimes have their criminal records sealed until they reach the age of majority, which is generally 18. After that age, the criminal records are "expunged," that is, they're erased from the public record. So, you may never know if your partner had criminal problems as a youth.

Also, many states allow the public to view other crime-related information, such as any traffic tickets issued to him; whether he's ever been charged with a crime; and whether he's ever spent time in jail or prison

In most instances, you'll need a lot of personal information about your partner to make sure you get the right background information. You'll need her name, current and perhaps a prior address, birth date, and maybe even a Social Security number.


Do you have any reason to believe that your companion hasn't told you his real name? Was he really born where he says he was born? This type of information can be found through birth certificates and other vital records. These also are usually kept in a county office, like a courthouse or a specific agency, like a "bureau of vital statistics." These same offices might also house marriage and divorce records.

Again, in many states, your access to records like birth certificates might be limited because of confidentiality issues. However, you might be able to get an unofficial copy of the record. Such a copy shows the information on file, but it doesn't contain a guarantee of it's accuracy by the state or county. In some areas, there might be rolls or registers listing names, birth dates, and birth locations.

Getting the Information

Of course, if you have an idea of where your partner was born, married or divorced, or had criminal troubles, then you can go to that place and search the records yourself. Today, many of the records can be searched by computers at the office or building, but sometimes the records are still on paper and filed on banks of shelves or in file cabinets. Many local governments, and especially courts, have Web sites and databases that you can search from your own computer at home.

There are also dozens if not hundreds of Internet-based services that let you search their records for a fee. Some of these services have their own databases that are filled with information that they've gathered from across the country. There are other services that will do the actual searching for you and charge a fee for any information they find. For either type of service, you should have as much information as possible about your companion to make the search worth your time and money.

Online Dating

Online dating services have grown immensely over the years. Until recently, there was little or no regulation on who could access these online dating sites, which led to a lot of criminal activity. Identity theft and impersonation are common, as are more serious crimes, like sexual harassment, stalking, and even rape of persons using the site by others on the same site. Often, the offenders have criminal histories.

A recent New Jersey law is an attempt to stop such crimes. The new law requires online dating services to notify New Jersey residents who use the service if criminal background checks have been completed for all persons using the service. Other states are considering enacting similar laws.

"Mail-Order Brides"

Until recently, international marriage brokers could set up, almost without restriction, marriages between American citizens, and particularly men, and women from all over the world. A new federal law, the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act places some restrictions on mail order marriages focusing on criminal activities. Particularly, an American citizen who wants to marry a foreign national must have marital and criminal background checks performed on him and he must sign and give a copy of the reports to his intended bride. The idea behind the law is to prevent foreign women from entering into abusive marriages.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • A woman I'm dating had her father, who's a policeman, run my name through the police department's computer database. Is that legal?
  • How do I know if I can trust the results I may get from an Internet-based company that provides background checks?
  • My boyfriend had a background check done on me, and the company gave him a report that was full of wrong information about me, like a prior drug conviction. Is there anyway I can clean up my record? Can I force the company to tell my boyfriend that their information is wrong?
Related Resources on Lawyers.comsm

- Premarital Agreement
- Cohabitation, Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements
- Visit our Life Event: Get Married page for more information
- Find a Family Law Lawyer in your area

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