Feburary 17, 2016
Getting married is a big decision, and it isn't just about making a lifelong commitment to your partner: Marriage is a legal contract. When you get married, you not only accept rights and benefits, but you also take on legal and financial obligations.
Marriage is the legal union of two people, who are joined together after they obtain a marriage license from their state and take part in a ceremony. As a result of the historic U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell decision in June 2015, same-sex partners living anywhere in the U.S. can now get married and have their unions recognized for all state and federal benefits, just like opposite-sex couples. For more information on marriage-equality and LGBT rights, see Nolo's LGBT Law section.
In some states, couples can become legally married without a license or ceremony. This type of marriage is called a "common law" marriage. A common law marriage is created when two people live together for a significant period of time (not defined in any state), hold themselves out as a married couple, and intend to be married. For more information, see Common Law Marriage FAQ.
When you get married, the rights and responsibilities of that relationship are defined by the laws of the state in which you live. However, you and your spouse may be able to modify the rules by creating a premarital (or prenuptial) agreement (for example, you can agree to keep your property separate). Before you say "I do," you might want to consider the following:
For answers to these questions, visit the Prenuptial Agreement area of Nolo's website.
Whether you opt for a simple ceremony in City Hall or a black-tie gala with all the trimmings, you'll need to meet some basic requirements and make certain legal and financial preparations for your impending marriage. You'll need to know the answer to these questions:
For the answers, see Marriage Requirements, Licenses, and Ceremonies FAQ.
Once you're married, you'll receive numerous rights and benefits. These range from tax and inheritance benefits, to alimony and child support in the event of a divorce, to your right to take bereavement leave from your job if your spouse should die. Marriage rights and benefits fall into the following categories:
The federal benefits of marriage aren't available to unmarried couples that are in domestic partnerships or civil unions. Because marriage is avaiable to everyone, the federal government has no obligation to recognize these alternative relationships.
You will take on certain responsibilities when you get married. The responsibilities vary from state to state, but commonly include the following:
After you've tied the knot, you are legally joined to your spouse. This means that, when the honeymoon's over, you may be in line for some paperwork. All of the following are optional, however:
If you want to consider opting out of some of the rules of marriage, Nolo's book, Prenuptial Agreements: How to Write a Fair & Lasting Contract, by Katherine E. Stoner and Shae Irving, provides detailed information on every state's laws about prenups and marital property. It also explains what you can and can't do with a prenup, helps you decide whether or not you need one, and walks you step by step through the process of drafting your own agreement.