Family Law

I Had a Destination Wedding: Is My Marriage Legal?

By Amy Castillo, J.D., University of Minnesota School of Law
Make sure your foreign wedding will be considered valid in the U.S.

People who treasure special and unusual moments are more likely to pursue destination weddings. Destination weddings typically feature a beach in a country with a warm climate, like Mexico or the Bahamas, and may emphasize local traditions and culture. Unfortunately, sometimes, couples get swept up in the romance of the event and forget to check legal requirements. When the wedding is over, the new spouses may be left wondering whether they’re actually married.

What type of wedding ceremony did you have?

Just because you have a wedding ceremony doesn’t mean it’s legal. In and of itself, a wedding ceremony means nothing. Marriage is a civil contract, meaning that you have to satisfy legal and civil requirements—it doesn’t matter to the government whether you had a beautiful religious ceremony in a church or if you stood out on a beach at sunrise and skipped rocks into the ocean. The bottom line is that a symbolic ceremony alone isn't enough to validate your marriage.

Many people who choose destination weddings also like the idea of a symbolic wedding since they’re already doing something special and unusual by having a wedding abroad. They might ask a cherished relative to preside over the ceremony, for example. Couples who have symbolic ceremonies might overlook basic marriage requirements in the host country. For example, they might overlook blood tests or fail to fill out affidavits. For all of these reasons, symbolic ceremonies alone are almost always not legally binding and they’re not considered valid in America.

By contrast, if you had an official from the government of your host country perform your wedding, and you went to the trouble of satisfying legal requirements, you probably have a valid marriage. For instance, if you arranged for a local government official to perform your ceremony, and a translator stood nearby, making sure you understood everything, the odds are good that you are legally married in your destination country.

In addition to having a government official preside over your wedding, what other kinds of legal requirements can you expect to run into? Examples of miscellaneous legal requirements you might have to satisfy include:

  • blood tests
  • satisfaction of the minimum age of consent to marry
  • parental consent (for younger partners)
  • providing documents, like death or divorce certificates, birth certificates, passports, and identification, that prove all previous relationships have ended and that are authenticated and translated into the local language
  • satisfaction of any residency requirements, and
  • completion of an affidavit of eligibility to marry.

If you satisfy all other requirements prescribed by the law of your host country, then you likely have a legally binding marriage in the country where you had your wedding. To sum it up, according to the U.S. Department of State, foreign marriages (meaning marriages performed outside of the United States) are locally valid marriages provided that they are entered into in accordance with local law.

Did You Call the American Embassy or Consulate?

The next step is to find out whether your marriage—which is legal in the host country where you had the ceremony—is valid in America. To get a first impression, you should contact the relevant Embassy or Consulate for more information. These American officials are truly the experts in understanding local law and how it affects American law. The embassy can give you official guidance on what marriage requirements you can expect to encounter and whether your marriage will be accepted and valid in America.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for determining whether a marriage arising out of a destination wedding is legally binding. All that can be said is that for the most part, as long as they didn’t break any American laws, marriages performed outside the United States are recognized in America. But to be safe, call around and research the matter to ensure that your marriage in another country will be recognized when you come home to.

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