In June 2015, the United States Supreme Court, in a historical ruling, legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country. (Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644) Before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision, same-sex couples could marry in a handful of states, but because of state same-sex marriage bans, the couple's marriage was only valid in those states. The Supreme Court ruling applies to every couple. It ensures that same-sex couples can enjoy the state and federal protections and benefits that opposite-sex couples receive when they marry.
Today, same-sex marriage bans remain on the books (in state constitutions and law), despite the high Court's ruling. In an effort to focus on equality and inclusion, many states are currently trying to remove existing bans from state law. For example, in 2004, Michigan residents voted to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution, which remains in the constitution, despite the court ruling. In 2020 legislators introduced a series of bills that would eliminate the discriminatory language from law. Many other states are taking the same steps.
The marriage information listed in this article applies equally to same-sex and opposite-sex couples. For more information on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) rights and marriage-equality, visit Nolo's LGBTQ Law section.
A marriage license is a piece of paper that authorizes you to get married, and 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 county clerk's office, recorder, or registrar, depending on where you live. The county or city official will mail a certified copy of the certificate to the married couple within a few weeks of the marriage ceremony.
Most states require both spouses, along with the person who officiated and one or two witnesses, to sign the marriage certificate; often, this is done just after the ceremony.
If you find yourself needing a copy of a marriage certificate—yours or someone else's—it's not difficult to arrange. We suggest that you visit the website of the National Center for Health Statistics at www.cdc.gov/nchs. Here you'll learn where in your state to write, call, fax, or email for the documents you need. Be prepared to pay a small fee, often $5 to $40, for each copy you request.
Usually, you may apply for a marriage license at any county clerk's office in the state where you want to be married. In some circumstances, you must apply in the county or town where you intend to marry. If you're unsure of where you should go to apply, contact a local official in the clerk's office. You'll probably have to pay a small fee for your license.
In some states, even after you get your license, you'll have to wait a short period—one to three days—before you tie the knot. In special circumstances, the clerk can waive the waiting period. The license also has an expiration date, so if you wait too long, your license will expire, and you will need to reapply. Licenses are generally valid for 30 days to 12 months, depending on the state.
For more specific information about marriage license laws in your state, see Chart: State Marriage License and Blood Test Requirements.
A handful of states still require blood tests for couples planning to marry. Most do not. (For information on which states require them, see Chart: State Marriage License and Blood Test Requirements.
Premarital blood tests check for venereal disease or rubella. The tests may also disclose the presence of genetic disorders such as sickle-cell anemia or Tay-Sachs disease. The state will not test you for HIV, but in some states, the person who tests you will provide you with HIV and AIDS information. In most states, the law waives blood tests for people over 50 and for other reasons, including pregnancy or sterility.
If either partner tests positive for venereal disease, what happens depends on the state where you are marrying. Some states may refuse to issue a marriage license. Other states may allow you to marry as long as you both know that the disease is present.
In most states, both partners must be at least 18 years old before the state will issue a marriage license. If you're under 18, most states will permit you to marry with your parent or legal guardian's consent. If both of your parents are alive, you may need consent from both. States may require a written form for consent, and that will be enough. However, other courts may require you to attend a hearing with your parent so the judge can confirm consent. If you're unsure what your state requires, talk to an attorney near you before applying for a marriage license.
Each state has requirements for who can perform your ceremony. It's not uncommon for couples to desire a non-religious ceremony (think, courthouse wedding.) Typically, the officiant must be a judge, justice of the peace, or court clerk who has the legal authority to perform marriages or by a person given temporary authority by a judge or court clerk to conduct a marriage ceremony.
If you're seeking a religious ceremony, you'll need to hire a clergy member, such as a priest or rabbi, to perform the ceremony. Some couples ask a family member or friend to become "ordained" as a minister through a church or online program so that person can perform the ceremony. Native American weddings may be performed by a tribal chief or another official, as designated by the tribe.
Usually, no special words are required as long as the spouses acknowledge their intention to marry each other. Keeping that in mind, you can design whatever type of ceremony you desire.
It is customary to have witnesses to the marriage, but not all states require a witness.
To marry, you must meet certain requirements, which vary slightly from state to state. However, marriage requirements generally include:
All states prohibit a person from marrying a sibling, half-sibling, parent, grandparent, great-grandparent, child, grandchild, great-grandchild, aunt, uncle, niece, or nephew. Some states have additional prohibitions.
If you have additional questions regarding your state's specific marriage rules, contact an experienced attorney near you.