Step-By-Step Guide to Legal Marriage

By Lia Kopin-Green
May 26, 2022

Are you planning on getting married soon? While most of the excitement about a wedding revolves around the ceremony and reception, it is important to keep in mind that there are several steps that need to take place in order to become legally married. Obtaining a marriage license and a marriage certificate can take time, but these documents are necessary in a legal marriage and play a significant role if a spouse plans on changing his or her last name after getting married. The following information will help you to seamlessly navigate the legal marriage process.

1. Set a date and location

Generally, you will need to apply for a marriage license in the county where you plan to wed. Therefore, one of the first steps in the legal marriage process is figuring out where you and your spouse would like to get married. Establishing a date for your wedding is also important at this stage, since you surely do not want to wait until the last minute to apply for a marriage license. It can take time to receive your license after filing for it, so it is recommended to apply at least two weeks before the wedding. It is also required by some states that you wait at least 72 hours after you apply for a marriage license before getting married. However, on the other hand, applying for a marriage license too far away from your wedding is not a good idea, either. Marriage licenses expire, sometimes after 60 or 90 days, so make sure you file for one within the deadline to avoid reapplying during the stressful days before your wedding.

2. Apply for a marriage license at the county clerk’s office

Once you have a date and time established for your wedding, head to your local county clerk’s office to apply for a marriage license. You and your spouse should plan to spend about an hour at the office. While some county clerk offices will mail out your marriage license within a couple of days, others will issue it immediately. To prepare for your visit to the county clerk, here are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • Depending on your state, you may have to choose between applying for a standard or confidential marriage license. Standard licenses, which are more common, become part of public record. Confidential licenses remain off public record; however, you may need to already live with your spouse before applying for one.
  • Some states require a witness present at the time of marriage license application, so it may be necessary to invite a family member or friend.
  • Both you and your spouse will need to show proof of identity, so bring a driver’s license or passport. You may even be required to bring a birth certificate in some states.
  • If you are planning on changing your name, you can do so at the county clerk’s office. You will retain your maiden name until you actually get married.
  • If it is not your first marriage, you will need to prove that you are able to legally remarry by presenting a certificate of divorce or death certificate.
  • If you or your partner are under 18, you may need permission from one or both parents to get married.
  • You will have to pay a fee for your marriage license. The amount varies from state to state, but expect to pay anywhere between $25-$125.

3. Get married and sign the marriage license

With your marriage license in hand, it is time to get married! Your spouse and you will start collecting signatures after the ceremony. Naturally, the couple will sign the marriage license first. If the license includes a space for a married name, you should use the new last name you intend to use.

Next, whoever legally performed your ceremony, the officiant, must sign the marriage license. Take into account that several states allow a self-united or self-solemnized marriage, where an officiant is not needed in the first place and therefore does not need to sign the marriage license.

Lastly, some states will require the signature of one or two witnesses on the license. In most states, the witnesses must be over the age of 18.

4. The officiant sends the marriage license to the county clerk

Once all of the signatures are collected, the officiant’s final job is to turn in the marriage license to the county clerk's office. The license can be submitted either by mail or in person. After that, you will usually receive a copy of your marriage certificate in the mail. It is important to obtain at least three copies of the certified marriage certificate since you may need them to change your marital status with car insurance, social security, bank accounts, and the IRS. You can contact your local county clerk if you need additional copies.

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