Getting married is more than just planning a wedding. It's a legal contract, with mutual obligations and legal benefits. State laws determine the requirements for marriage—whether and when you may get married (and to whom), as well as the steps required to tie the knot legally. Although there are differences from state to state, there are also general rules that apply in most of the United States. Below, we've given those general rules, along with the most important exceptions. (See our chart on marriage license requirements for specific state-by-state information on getting licenses and waiting periods.)
Basically, a marriage license is the legal document that allows you to get married, while a marriage certificate is the document that proves you're married. But a marriage license and certificate may not actually be separate documents. Your state might refer to the same document as a marriage license before you're married and a marriage certificate after it's been signed, returned, and certified by the government official.
The process for getting married is similar in most states. Typically, you'll need to go through three basic steps:
After the marriage ceremony, the officiant is usually responsible for returning the signed document within a certain period of time to the same governmental office where you got the marriage license (more on that below), so that your marriage is officially recorded. You'll then receive a certified copy of your marriage certificate.
In the vast majority of states, you need a license to get married. The process of getting a marriage license is largely a way to verify your identity and make sure you meet the age and other requirements for marriage in the state (more below on those requirements). It also lets an officiant know you're eligible to marry, and it starts the process of documenting and recording your marriage with authorities. Some states impose penalties on anyone who performs a wedding ceremony for a couple without a marriage license.
If you live in one of the handful of states that still recognize common law marriage, you might have your marriage legally recognized even though you never got a marriage license or had a formal ceremony. But you'll have to meet the requirements for a common law marriage—which isn't necessarily easy to do. You must prove that both you and your common-law spouse intended to be married, and that you followed up with a range of concrete actions showing that you lived as a married couple.
Alabama stopped allowing common law marriages in 2017 (although older ones are still valid). But the state substituted a procedure for getting married and legally recording your marriage without a license or a ceremony. You simply have to fill out a marriage certificate (which some counties provide online) and submit it to the probate court within 30 days after both you and your spouse have signed the form in the presence of a notary. (Ala Code § 30-1-9.1 (2022).)
Typically, county clerks handle marriage license applications. In many states, however, you'll apply at different offices, such as:
In most states, you may apply for a marriage license with the appropriate office anywhere in the state where you plan to get married. But several states require that you apply in the county where you or your intended spouse live, or where the wedding will take place.
Most of the time, you and your future spouse must go in person to apply for a marriage license. Several states allow you to apply for a license online, but you'll almost always have to appear in person to verify your identity and pick up the license.
A few states allow "proxy" marriages when one spouse isn't able to appear in person—usually because that spouse is in active military duty overseas.
The fee for a marriage license varies from state to state, and often from county to county. The fees typically range from about $30 to $75. Some states, such as Texas, charge less for couples who take a premarital education course, and a few states charge more for couples who don't live in the state but want to get married there.
After you apply for a marriage license, some states have short waiting periods—one to three days—before you may get married. When that's the case, either you'll have to wait to receive the license or the license will have a delayed effective date .
Waiting periods are traditionally meant prevent spur-of-the moment weddings. That could be why Florida's three-day waiting period is suspended when couples take a marriage preparation class. But the requirement also doesn't apply to out-of-state residents who are getting married in Florida—which could be intended as a convenience for couples planning destination weddings in the state. (Fla. Stat. § 741.04 (2022).) A few states only have waiting periods for applicants who are younger than 18.
Of the states with waiting periods, some allow waivers under certain circumstances—such as when the wait would cause a hardship.
With or without waiting periods, the time it takes to process your application can vary depending on local staffing and workloads, as well as public health crises like a pandemic. So it makes sense to check ahead of time with the office where you'll apply for the marriage license to find out how long it might take. You don't want to run the risk of having to cancel or postpone your wedding because you haven't received the license.
In most states, marriage licenses will expire after a certain period of time—usually 30 days to a year. In those states, you'll have to apply for another license if you've waited too long to get married, or if your signed marriage certificate hasn't been returned in time.
In the early-to-mid-20th century, many states required all couples to get blood tests before getting married. But states have gotten rid of those requirements over the years, as legislators finally realized that premarital blood tests weren't a cost-effective way of improving public health.
As of 2022, New York is the only remaining state with any type of blood test requirement connected to marriage—and it only applies to certain ethnic groups. State law requires Black and Latino applicants for marriage licenses to submit to a test for sickle cell anemia. But the test results won't affect anyone's ability to get married. The purpose is simply to alert couples to the potential risk that any future children could inherit the disease. The law allows people to refuse the test based on religious beliefs. (N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law § 13-aa (2022).)
In most states, both partners must be at least 18 years old before the state will issue a marriage license without parental consent. However, most states allow at least some younger people to get married with the consent of their parents or legal guardians. The typical lower age limit is 16, but several states have no minimum age requirement, as long as the children have their parents' consent. A few states set a limit on the age gap between spouses when one of them is under 18.
Usually, you'll need the consent of both living parents to get married if you're younger than 18. But one parent's approval might be enough in your state, especially if your parents are divorced.
In addition to parental approval, some states require a court hearing and a judge's order before minors under a certain age may get married. For instance, California requires a multistep procedure whenever anyone under 18 wants to get married. Both partners (along with a parent for each of them) will have to go through an interview with Family Court Services, which will prepare a report for the court. Then, a judge will interview each partner separately. If the judge decides to allow the marriage, the couple will have to wait 30 days before they may apply for a marriage license. (Cal. Fam. Code § 304 (2022).)
Even if you and your future spouse meet the age requirements in your state, all states prohibit marriages between close relatives. Typically, you aren't allowed to marry a sibling, half-sibling, parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, aunt, uncle, niece, or nephew. Several states extend these prohibitions to other relatives, such as first cousins and certain step-relatives.
For anyone who doesn't realize this by now, it's worth pointing out that same-sex marriages have been legal across the United States since 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry (Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644). In some states, same-sex marriage bans remain on the books (in state constitutions or statutes). But those prohibitions may not be enforced under the high court's ruling. For more information on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) rights and marriage-equality, visit Nolo's LGBTQ Law section.
Along with marriage licenses, age limits, and incest prohibitions, states usually have other requirements for getting married, such as:
States have different rules on who can perform wedding ceremonies. For civil weddings, authorized officiants usually include judges, justices of the peace, some court clerks, and some elected officials (like mayors).
For religious ceremonies, many states require officiants to be a member of the clergy, such as a rabbi, priest, minister, or imam. But there are exceptions, such as:
Depending on local laws, you might be able to have a friend or family member get ordained online or get temporary approval from civil authorities to conduct your wedding. You should be able to get details on local requirements from the office that issues marriage licenses in the state where you plan to get married (usually the court clerk).
States generally don't have any specific requirements for what must happen during a marriage ceremony, as long you and your spouse affirm your intention to marry each other. Beyond that—and any rites specific to your religion or culture—you're generally free to design your own ceremony.
Although it's customary to have witnesses to the marriage, many states don't require a witness.
You can usually get a certified copy of your marriage certificate (for a small fee) from the office where you got your marriage license. In many states, you may also request a copy from the State Office of Vital Records. The National Center for Health Statistics provides state-by-state information on how to request copies.