Family Law

What's in a Marriage License?

By Joseph Pandolfi, Retired Judge
Learn what information a marriage license contains.

Is a Marriage License Mandatory?

If you’re planning on getting married in any of the 50 states or the District of Columbia, you must get a marriage license. However, be aware that where you obtain the license, and the information you’ll have to provide, can vary from state to state.

How Do I Get a Marriage License?

Depending on where you live, you’ll apply for a marriage license at your county clerk’s office or a municipal clerk’s office. Be prepared to provide the clerk with proof of identity (such as a driver’s license, passport, or state or federal identification card), as well as your social security number.

Some states may require the couple to appear together to complete the application. Additionally, you may need to bring an adult witness with you (usually someone 18 or older).

You should be able to determine where you have to go for the license, as well as what you’ll need to bring, by checking your state’s website. You may also be able to start the application process online, although you’ll most likely have to appear and sign the application at the clerk’s office.

What Information Does the Marriage License Contain?

The type of information included in a marriage license will depend on your particular state’s requirements, but typically includes the following:

  • full names, as listed on your birth certificates
  • current last names, if different than your birth names
  • current addresses
  • dates and places of birth
  • parents' birth names and places of birth, and
  • number of prior marriages.

Regarding prior marriages, the application may seek information as to how and when the last marriage ended, and/or the birth name of the most recent spouse. If you were previously in a “civil union,” you’ll likely have to provide the same information as requested for a prior marriage. Check with the clerk’s office in advance to see if they require proof of how the previous marriage or civil union ended (judgment of divorce or dissolution, or death certificate). Also find out if they need your birth certificate. If you don’t have these items readily available, it may take you time to obtain them.

Some additional facts you might have to supply in the marriage license application (again, depending on your state) are:

  • each applicant’s level of education
  • whether the applicants are related
  • whether either applicant is under the supervision of a guardian or conservator
  • any new last name an applicant plans to use after the marriage
  • each applicant’s sex and race, and
  • whether both applicants are the parents of a child born in the state.

In the list immediately above, the reference to the prospective spouses being related would be to learn if there’s a close blood relationship, which is considered incest and, thus, illegal. State laws define the prohibited degree of relationship.

The question about either of the applicants being under the supervision of a guardian or conservator relates to determining the applicant’s mental competency to enter into the marriage.

A Word About Time Restrictions

A marriage license is only valid for a certain period of time, and each state has its own rules governing this. The duration can be as short as 20 days, for example in South Dakota, or up to a year, as in Arizona.

Also, be aware that in some states you won’t receive the license until a certain time after you’ve completed it—usually no more than a few days. And other states will not permit the marriage ceremony to take place until at least some period of time has passed since obtaining the license—again, normally only a few days.

Keep in mind that the marriage license is different than the marriage certificate. The license authorizes the marriage, while the certificate proves that the marriage occurred and is normally completed at the time of the ceremony.

If you have questions about the marriage laws in your state, consider consulting a family law attorney in your area.

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