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Legal Requirements for Marriage FAQ's

Many people think the legal requirements for marriage are confusing and overwhelming. The reality is, once you know what is required in your state, the steps are simple, leaving you more time to concentrate on the more enjoyable parts of getting married. Although the legal requirements vary state to state, all legal marriages between a man and a woman performed in one state must be recognized by all other states. This article answers the most frequently asked questions regarding legal requirements for marriage.

What are the legal documents required for marriage?

You need to obtain a marriage license from your county clerk and pay the clerk a fee. As long as you and your spouse meet the requirements, discussed below, your marriage license should be granted. You can then proceed with your ceremony. After the ceremony, whoever officiated your wedding has the duty of filing your marriage certificate with the applicable recording agency in your county. If that person fails to do so, it does not invalidate or nullify your marriage; it just may make it harder to document your marriage.

Are blood tests still required before marriage?

Many states have done away with mandatory premarital physical exams or blood tests. Some states still require blood tests for venereal diseases, and a few also test for rubella, sickle-cell anemia, and tuberculosis. No state requires mandatory HIV/AIDS testing, but most states require that marriage license applicants be offered such tests or information where they can obtain a test.

Can I marry anyone I want?

Not necessarily. Most states require both parties to be 18 years old or older. Otherwise, they must obtain consent from a parent or judge. The most common situations in which a judge consents to an underage marriage is when the woman is pregnant, and in these circumstances, the judge often requires proof that the couple can financially support themselves.

People who are already married, even if they have been separated for a long period of time, cannot get married until they divorce their former spouse. Proof of dissolution (divorce), annulment, or death of previous spouse is required to show termination of any and all prior marriages. When in a legal marriage, changing your legal status from married to unmarried or single is obtained via a dissolution or divorce.

Both people must have the mental capacity to enter into a contract. If because of mental illness, drugs or alcohol, or other issues that affect judgment, either person cannot and does not understand what it means to be married, then that person lacks the mental capacity to consent to the marriage.

The two people cannot be blood relatives. In most states, they can't be closer than third cousins. Many states allow first cousins to marry if they are of an elderly age and no longer able to conceive.

Most states only allow marriage to be between a man and a woman - but laws are changing every day. Same sex marriage is constantly evolving and states are passing laws allowing same sex marriages at a fast pace. Federal currently law defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman - but the Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on this and other related gay marriage issues. For purposes of taxes and other federal matters, marriage is primarily governed by state law. FindLaw's Same Sex Marriage sections has a wealth of information on this issue.

What states recognize same sex marriage?

Although the federal government does not recognize same sex marriage, some states do, while others recognize civil unions or something similar for same sex couples. The following states recognize same sex marriage AND perform them: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Recent Washington D.C. legislation implies that D.C. could be performing same-sex marriages, recognized only on a state level, as early as February, 2010.

California performed same-sex marriages between June 16, 2008 and November 4, 2008; however, the California electorate then approved a voter initiative that reinstated the ban on same-sex marriage as part of the state constitution. Marriages performed between June 16, 2008 and November 4, 2008, or performed in other jurisdictions before or during this period, are still recognized in California.

New York recognizes same sex marriages that were legally validated in other states, but does not grant same-sex marriage licenses or perform same sex marriages. This area of law is rapidly changing and readers should verify with state officials on the status of same sex marriage.

If my state does not recognize gay marriage, can we still have a same sex wedding?

Yes, but it will not be legally recognized. You can even enter into a contract with your partner regarding property ownership and expectations of your relationship. As long as there is nothing in your contract that is illegal and the consideration of your contract is not sexual, it is legally binding and can be reviewed in court in the case of a contract default or separation. This type of contract is just a contract, however. It does not make you and your partner legally spouses or domestic partners. The contract would not entitle you to any tax breaks, partnership benefits, spousal rights, or even get you into divorce court should you end the relationship.

However, many people living in states that do not recognize gay marriage do have weddings that are symbolic for them and their loved ones; they then form partnership contracts that spell out things like what each person will bring to the partnership and who gets the shared property in the event of a separation.

What's the difference between a marriage license and a marriage certificate?

A marriage license is a document you must obtain from the county clerk before you get married. A marriage certificate is a document that proves you are married.

Typically, couples obtain a marriage license, hold the wedding ceremony, and then have the person who performed the ceremony file a marriage certificate in the appropriate county office within a few days. This may be the office of the county clerk, recorder or registrar, depending on where you live. The married couple will then be sent a certified copy of the marriage certificate.

Most states require both spouses, along with the person who officiated and one or two witnesses, to sign the marriage certificate. This is often done just after the ceremony.

Where do I obtain a marriage license?

You can usually apply for your marriage license at any county clerks office in the state in which you want to be married. Some states require you to apply in the county clerks office in which you want to be married. Most states require a small fee, and receiving your marriage license usually takes a few days.

In most states, your marriage license will expire 30 days after it is issued. If this happens, do not panic, you can apply for a new one. On the other hand, most states imply a waiting period from the date of the issuance of your marriage license until the date of your actual ceremony. Usually, this time period is only one to five days. The idea behind the waiting period is to allow the parties to change their minds. This waiting period can be waived for good cause, such as one of the parties being deployed, or only arriving in town the day before the wedding. The following twenty-six states have wait periods:

  • 1 day wait period: Delaware, Illinois, South Carolina
  • 2 day wait period: Maryland, New York
  • 3 day wait period: Alaska, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington
  • 4 day wait period: Connecticut
  • 5 day wait period: Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin

What if I lost my marriage certificate?

Each state differs on the steps required and the locations to obtain copies of marriage certificates. The process is fairly simply in each state, and you can obtain copies of yours or even someone else's. Visit the website of the National Center for Health Statistics to learn where in your state you can write, call, fax, or email for the documents you need. There will probably be a small fee, between $5 and $10.

Can anyone officiate a marriage?

No. The officiant must be qualified by the county. Civil unions, which are non-religious, are performed by a judge, justice of the peace, or, in some states, a court clerk. Sometimes, people will be given temporary legal authority to perform marriages by a judge or a court clerk. Weddings that are religious ceremonies are conducted by a member of the clergy. This is usually a priest, minister, or rabbi. Native American tribes can designate certain officials to perform weddings, but usually the tribal chief performs the weddings.

What are the legal requirements of marriage ceremonies?

The marriage ceremony must be performed in front of witnesses and an officiant, qualified by the state, such as a priest, rabbi, or judge. Civil ceremonies are conducted by judges or, in some states, county clerks and government officials. No state authorizes ship captains to perform marriages. Most states require at least two witnesses to sign the marriage certificate.

Do we have to do anything after the wedding?

First of all, every state has different laws on the books so you must confer with your state to find out what laws apply. Generally speaking, most states have no legal requirements for marriage after the ceremony. A handful of states require consummation of the marriage through sexual relations. Most states do not require consummation and simply consider the two married once the marriage ceremony ends. In other states, after your wedding, it is the responsibility of the person who performed your wedding ceremony to make sure the license is recorded with the county where you were married. Generally, a few weeks after your wedding, you will receive your marriage certificate in the mail. That said, even if the officiant fails to file the marriage certificate, the two are usually still considered married.

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