Is a Marriage License Required?
In all 50 states, and the District of Columbia, you must get a marriage license in order to be legally married. But each state and local governments have their own regulations which control how you go about getting one.
Where to Obtain the License
Where you go to apply for a marriage license varies from state to state, but normally it’s at a county clerk’s or municipal clerk’s office. For example, in New York, you can go to any town or city clerk in the state to complete the application. Some states may require you to fill out the application in the municipality (or county) where one of the applicants resides. This is the case in New Jersey—although if neither of the prospective spouses lives in New Jersey, they can apply in the municipality in which the ceremony will take place.
In some states, including Tennessee, you can begin the application process online, but you and your future spouse must still personally appear to finalize the license request. Some states may insist that the couple appear together to complete and sign the application.
If you have questions about the specific marriage license requirements where you live, check your state and local government websites.
What Information Do You Need to Get the License?
The information you’ll need to present when you apply for your marriage license will again depend on state and local laws. As a general rule, you’ll need proof of identity, typically a driver’s license, passport, or a state identification card. Also be prepared to provide your social security number. Some states (such as New Jersey) may require that you bring a witness who’s reached the age of majority, normally 18 years old. And, as you might expect, there’s usually a fee—New Jersey’s is $28 while New York charges $35.
If you’ve been married before, it’s probably a good idea to bring proof of how that marriage ended, such as a judgment of divorce or a death certificate. You may also need to bring your birth certificate. Check with the clerk’s office in advance to find out what's required.
If you’re interested in a civil union (assuming your state permits them), expect that the license requirements will be similar to those for a marriage.
Previously, many states banned same-sex marriages, but in the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell decision, the Justices ruled that prohibiting same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. Today, all states are bound by this decision and cannot deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Be mindful that in addition to the basic requirements for a marriage license, every state also has laws governing marriage eligibility, which typically include the following:
- you must meet your state’s age requirements
- you can’t currently be married to someone else (bigamy), and
- you can't marry a close blood relative (incest).
How Long Is a Marriage License Viable?
Once again, this depends on where you live. In South Dakota, the license is only good for 20 days, but in Nebraska, it’s valid for up to one year.
Something else to be aware of is that a few states have a mandatory waiting period between when you complete the marriage license application and when you actually receive the license, which is normally only a few days. Additionally, some states impose restrictions on how soon you can marry after receiving the license. Generally, this is also only a few days, but the last thing you need is to have everything set for your wedding, and then find out your license won’t be ready in time.
Finally, remember that a marriage license is not the same as a marriage certificate, which is usually filled out right after the ceremony. The license permits you to get married, but the certificate is the actual proof that the marriage took place.
You should be able to find specific information about your state’s marriage license requirements online. If you have any questions about marriage laws in your state, you should speak to a local family law attorney.