Family Law

Is Our Marriage Valid in Every State?

By Amy Castillo, J.D., University of Minnesota School of Law
Worried about whether your marriage will stand up in any of America's state courts? In many cases, you may be protected by the Full Faith and Credit clause of the United States Constitution.

People sometimes worry whether their marriage is valid either because they’re common law married or they got married in another country. They may also worry that their marriage simply won’t be recognized in other states. Continue reading to learn more about whether other jurisdictions will recognize your marital status.

Full Faith and Credit: What Does It Mean?

Article IV, Section 1 of the United States Constitution provides:

The Full Faith and Credit Clause is a living, breathing part of the U.S. Constitution that has had an enormous impact on American society. For example, the Supreme Court didn’t strike down anti-miscegenation laws (laws banning interracial marriage) until 1967, but before that, a number of Southern states that continued to ban interracial marriage attempted unsuccessfully to use the Full Faith and Credit Clause to force other states to prohibit interracial marriage.

More recently, opponents of same-sex marriage argued unsuccessfully that states which opposed same-sex marriage would be forced by the Full Faith and Credit Card to accept other states’ decisions to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This whole argument was obviated by the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which stated that marriage is a fundamental right and that same-sex couples have every right to partake of it.

What Does the Full Faith and Credit Clause say About Marriage Today?

The Full Faith and Credit clause essentially says that each state must show comity to (meaning, acceptance of and deference to) the official acts of any other state or territory—and that includes accepting marriages completed in other states. In other words, if a couple marries in Minnesota and later moves to South Carolina, the South Carolina court must recognize the Minnesota marriage. This typically comes to the fore when someone has to file for divorce in a state other than the location where they married. For example, if the Minnesota couple moved to South Carolina and a few years later, decided to divorce, the South Carolina family courts must accept the divorce filings and preside over the divorce even though the couple married in Minnesota.

There are a few obscure exclusions to this rule that don’t affect many people. For example, federal case law has established that the Full Faith and Credit Clause can’t be used to force states to recognize marriages from states that allow marriage between close relatives. So if two cousins married in a state that allowed it, the Full Faith and Credit clause couldn’t be invoked to require another court to recognize the marriage and preside over their divorce.

What Does This Mean for Your Marriage?

If you’re common-law married (meaning that you and your spouse believe you were married and behave as if you are even though you never formally married), you can only form new common-law marriages in one of the small minority of states that allow it. However, once you’ve met the prerequisites for a common law marriage, you don’t have to feel like you’re trapped in the state where you married. The Full Faith and Credit Clause allows you to move to any other state, including states that don’t allow citizens to form common law marriages, and expect to have your union recognized.

Your new state has to respect your common law marriage, even though common law marriages aren’t legal there. For example, if two spouses form a common law marriage in Montana—which allows common law marriage—and they later move to New York—which does not—New You must recognize the marriage and allow the couple to, for example, get a divorce. This is because Full Faith and Credit requires New York to respect Montana’s official decision to allow common law marriage.

The answer isn’t as clear for people who marry abroad. Per the U.S. Department of State, “Recognition of the validity of marriages performed abroad depends on the laws of the place in which the marriage is to be performed.” Thus, it’s impossible to make a one-size-fits-all, black and white determination about when marriages performed abroad will be respected in the United States. However, if your marriage abroad was conducted consistent with the marriage laws of the place you married, and you fully complied with all requirements asked of you, the odds are relatively good that your marriage will be recognized in American states.

Finally, if you married in one American state and want to move to another, you should not have any problems provided that your marriage was accomplished in full and exact conformity with the laws of that state. For example, if you married in Minnesota and satisfied all requirements to get a license and maintain residency, and you were later married by an officiant who had legal authority to perform a wedding, then your marriage is 100% legal and should be respected by all other states.

If you have questions, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for advice.

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