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A wedding is not just a significant milestone in your relationship with your partner: it’s also a significant change in your relationship with the government and the law. As such, there is paper work involved–in particular, two extremely important documents: your marriage license and your marriage certificate.
Marriage license vs. marriage certificate
The difference between the two is pretty simple: the marriage license shows that you have the legal right to get married; and the marriage certificate shows that you actually did get married.
You can, of course, have as many wedding ceremonies as you want, but without that marriage license, none of them will be valid in the eyes of the law. What’s more, you can’t obtain a marriage certificate without first having a marriage lisence–and the certificate will be crucial for any number of financial and legal arrangements in your future as a husband and wife.
So don’t screw this up! And definitely don’t leave it until the last minute. For this crucial step, timing is absolutely everything.
It is important to note that the license application is an actual legal document—an affidavit and sworn statement that there are no legal impediments to your marriage. (They never cover this on Law & Order reruns). Details vary from state to state, and from country to country, but the concept remains consistent. No matter who is marrying you, and no matter where your ceremony will take place, you need a marriage license.
Different Location, Different Requirements
When you have figured out where your wedding ceremony will take place, find out which local government office looks after marriage licenses. Usually, this is the local city clerk office or a registrar. For example, the New York City Office of the City Clerk (long name for a big job) has an actual marriage bureau that specifically looks after the marriage license paperwork. (Note to Dick Wolf, Law & Order: Marriage Bureau, think about it).
Many offices have online forms you can fill in to expedite the process. So Google will be your friend. Important to remember: you need a license for where you will be married—not where you live. So if you are crossing state lines or getting married in another country, you must apply for a license where the ceremony will take place.
Both of you must fill in the paperwork
Obtaining the marriage license is often the first legal decision you will make and take with your soon-to-be wife. You will both need to fill in the paperwork and you will both need to sign the paperwork (luckily not in blood but more on that later). It’s more than likely you will have to appear together at the same time as well. Key word: together. A reason for this is so you don’t wake up one day to discover you have been married to someone for 17 years and no one told you about it. It’s for your own good.
What kind of I.D. will you need?
You will need to bring government-issued identification with you to demonstrate you are the person who is actually getting married. Accept no imitations. This can be as simple as a drivers’ licence or passport but some places may also include a social security number or a birth certificate. So check. Then check again. If you have been previously married you will need to bring legal paperwork—a divorce decree or a death certificate—to show what was then is not now. Then check one more time.
Seriously—some states require a blood test from both of you before a license will be issued. Check requirements in your location. And maybe check Ancestry.com to make sure the limbs on your family trees aren’t somehow connected.
True story! You both have to take this course—offered online—if you are being married in Florida. It’s just like a driving test but on a computer and you are both at the wheel. Good luck. If you can live through deciding what answers to click on you have found your perfect match. Apparently.
How much does a marriage license & certificate cost?
Fees differ depending on where you are applying for a license but typically expect to pay anywhere between $20-$50 plus any extra money for things like tests and courses.
How long is a marriage license valid?
This is where you need to know the law in certain states. In some places, like Las Vegas, you can get your license and be married then and there. Yes, this means that what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas and sometimes you come home with a wife. Other states, though, require you wait 24 hours, sometimes longer. The upshot is that your wedding official will not be able to certify your marriage until the alloted time period is up. States that have zero waiting time include Nevada, Florida (for non-residents), Colorado, Maine, and Arizona. You need to wait 24 hours in New York and three days in Massachusetts.
Conversely, the clock starts ticking the minute you get your license. So make sure you actually get married within 60-90 days of being issued the license (depending on where your marriage will take place) or you will have to start the application process all over again. That means more paperwork and possibly bloodwork and no one wants that.
The Moment You’re Actually Married
Before your ceremony, your marriage official will ask you for your license and fill in some blanks. Make sure you have it with you or give it to your best man or someone you trust for safekeeping. Once the ceremonial duties are over, the wedding official will get you to sign the license, have it witnessed, and he or she will then sign it themselves. That is the moment you are legally married. The marriage official will return the signed license to the same place that issued the paperwork. You will then be sent a fancy marriage certificate that is your legal document and your important proof of marriage for the future. Look after it. Frame it if you’re fancy. Just don’t lose it!