How to Plan a Courthouse Wedding

City Hall Wedding Elopement Portrait

Photo by Choco Studio Photography

Do you fantasize about ditching the traditional wedding plans and saying "I do" in a city hall? Perhaps you'd prefer to fast-forward the engagement period and start your married life adventures together already. It could be that exchanging vows in an intimate, low-key setting appeals more to you than broadcasting your affection in front of 150 guests, some of whom you might not even know that well. Maybe you want to sock away the funds you would have spent on a blowout bash for the honeymoon of your dreams or a down payment on that house you've been eyeing. Or, you might be enthusiastically shaking your head "yes" to all of the above, in which case—we've got you covered.

"Courthouse weddings are perfectly legitimate and can be a rather cool way to declare your love," says wedding planner Danielle Jeatran, the lawyer-turned-wedding-planner of Wild Luxe Weddings. "As with a larger-scale wedding, you can customize your day to best reflect you as a couple, but there are a couple of things to bear in mind." For one, you'll need to be sure to plan ahead. A downside of a courthouse wedding is you may not be able to choose your wedding date if it's not far enough in advance. You'll also need to be comfortable with the fact that you won't be able to choose your officiant, but on the flip side, you'll likely have someone who is well-practiced at civil ceremonies. "If you are getting married at the courthouse, the officiant will, of course, be provided and it may be a judge, justice of the peace, notary or another qualified person," says Jeatran.

You'll save a lot of money with an intimate courthouse wedding, but it's still just as important to make it special. Here, wedding pros share their insights on etiquette and how to prep for and plan an unforgettable courthouse ceremony.

Steps to Planning a Courthouse Wedding

Choose a City Hall

Pick a place that has special significance to your relationship, whether it's where you met and fell in love or currently live—and don't feel limited to your local government building. You can travel to another destination and make it the first stop on a honeymoon getaway or part of a fun-filled family vacation. San Francisco is one example of a city hall that's worth the trip.

Research the Requirements for Getting a Marriage License

You can't tie the knot until you get your license first—figuring out all of the logistics ahead of time is crucial. "The formal and official process of ensuring your marriage is legal will vary from city/county to city/county within each state," says Jeatran. So you'll need to do some digging on your specific city's requirements. "You will most likely need to obtain the license from the relevant city/county office in advance," Jeatran advises.

It's a common misconception that you can decide to make it official and hightail it to city hall that afternoon. "Some states have a waiting period so you may not be able to get married the same day that you pick it up," says Carla Friday, wedding coordinator and founder of Details Made Simple. "There is also an expiration time that the license is good for, so try to get it closer to your wedding date." If you're getting married in another country, then you might be able to waive the waiting period and get it once you arrive in town. If not, then have a legal ceremony stateside before jetting off to your final destination, just to cover your bases.

Apply for the Marriage License

Once you've researched and understood all your city's requirements to obtain a marriage license, it's time to apply for one. To do so, you'll need a state-issued ID or driver's license, certified copies of both birth certificates, your social security numbers, and divorce papers (if either party has been divorced). Make sure you sign with a black pen or the city will send your license back. Some city halls only accept credit cards or money orders, so check to see what the acceptable forms of payment are.

Make an Appointment or Nominate a Day

Depending on the city or county, you may be able to make an appointment for your ceremony in advance. If you're able to do so, know that in some cases there may be a significant wait to secure an appointment. If you're not able to make an appointment with the city hall, you'll need to nominate a day to arrive and wait for your turn for your ceremony.

If you're hoping for a weekend wedding date, it may be a challenge to find a courthouse offering the appointment you desire. "Most courthouses will provide services Monday through Friday but it is best to check with your local courthouse," Jeatran advises.

Your marriage license is only valid for a period of time, so think backward from your civil ceremony date to when you got your license to be sure you're within the time frame.

Create a Courthouse Wedding Checklist 

Be sure to bring all the necessary paperwork when you head to the courthouse. "You will need to make sure you have your marriage license and associated paperwork, your ID documents, and witnesses at your appointment," says Jeatran. Make sure your witness(es) are over 18 and double-check ahead of time that they will be able to attend. "Also check whether you will be permitted to incorporate certain elements that might be important to you, for example, whether you would you like to recite your own vows, whether you would you like guests to attend (in addition to your witness(es)), and whether you would like to document the day with photographs or on film," Jeatran advises.

Capture the Event on Film

If there's one thing that you should invest in, it's hiring a talented photographer to document your wedding day. There's no better way to have mementos that you can look back on and cherish for decades to come. Ideally, you want someone who has shot at that city hall before and is familiar with the surrounding areas to scope out beautiful photo ops.

Invite Your Closest Family Members or Friends to Witness Your Commitment

One huge benefit of a no-fuss ceremony is that you don't need to adhere to the rules and politics associated with a typical wedding guest list and can pare it down to the chosen few who really mean the world to you. Every city hall may have slightly different rules and regulations. Jeatran suggests checking in advance, "see how many witnesses are needed and how many people may attend." This will usually be a small number of guests, so think about inviting your closest family members and friends.

Consider having a maid of honor or best man serve as the witness. If you prefer to have just the two of you present, your photographer can also be a designated witness.

Pick an Outfit You Feel Good In

Just because you're not having a big wedding doesn't mean you can't have a fabulous courthouse wedding outfit. You can make it as formal or as casual as you'd like. Feel free to wear whatever you and your partner feel best in, traditional wedding attire included. Jeatran says her biggest regret in her own courthouse wedding was not wearing something that made her feel special, "we were planning a big wedding six months later but looking back, I do regret not going with my gut on this one."

A classic white dress is always a chic choice, or go with a fun pantsuit or tuxedo. Some designers, like French-based brand Laure de Sagazan, have even devoted entire collections to civil ceremony attire. Or you could shop for a short white bridesmaid dress or cocktail frock, which may be cheaper than one labeled specifically for brides.

Add Personal Touches

Even if you can't recite your own vows, you can still incorporate some bridal traditions that reinforce the significance of the day. "For example, you can carry a bouquet, give a toast at the events following the ceremony, book a nice hotel for the night and splurge on some spa services, and plan an announcement in the local paper announcing your nuptials," Friday says.

You will have a limited amount of time with the courthouse officiant, so you may not be able to recite your own vows. Be sure to check ahead of time and if it's important to you, you can always shop around until you find a city or county courthouse where you can do so.

Throw a Fun-Filled After-Party

"You'll definitely want to plan a post-ceremony celebration of some sort," says April Masini, a relationship and etiquette expert. "Even if you think it's no big deal, it is. You can keep it tiny and intimate by having champagne in a hotel lounge or go all out with a reception at a restaurant, the local zoo or museum, or someone's home."

At the same time, don't feel guilty if you and your partner just want to get away together and honor your marriage. Whatever you decide, keep the festivities true to your personal interests or personality as a couple.

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