Whether you just don't love the idea of planning a full wedding or you'd prefer to fast-forward through the engagement period and jump right into married life, a courthouse wedding could be the right choice for you. "Courthouse weddings are perfectly legitimate and can be a rather cool way to declare your love," says wedding planner Danielle Jeatran. "As with a larger-scale wedding, you can customize your day to best reflect you as a couple, but there are a few of things to bear in mind."
The first thing to remember when organizing a courthouse wedding? You'll still need to plan ahead, especially if you have a particular wedding date in mind. You'll also need to be comfortable with the fact that you won't be able to choose your officiant, but it's worth noting that you'll likely have someone who is well-practiced at civil ceremonies presiding over your "I dos." "If you are getting married at the courthouse, the officiant will be provided, and it may be a judge, justice of the peace, notary, or another qualified person," says Jeatran.
Meet the Expert
- Danielle Jeatran is a lawyer turned wedding planner who owns Wild Luxe Weddings in Hawaii.
- Carla Friday is a wedding coordinator and founder of Details Made Simple, which provides services for couples in New Jersey, New York City, Connecticut, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.
- April Maccario is a relationship and etiquette expert who shares lifestyle and relationship tips for women.
You'll also save a lot of money by planning an intimate courthouse wedding as opposed to a larger event, and that's especially helpful for couples who are hoping to buy a home or enjoy an epic honeymoon. Still, you'll want to make the day special, and there are tons of ways to do just that without breaking the bank. Here, wedding professionals share their top tips on how to prepare for and plan an unforgettable courthouse wedding ceremony.
How to Plan a Courthouse Wedding in 10 Steps
City hall weddings may be one of the most straight-forward ways to get married, but they still require planning. Here's how to plan one in 10 simple steps.
1. Choose Your Location
Pick a city hall in a place that has special significance to your relationship, whether it's where you met and fell in love or currently live; whatever you, don't feel limited to just your local government building if it doesn't feel right. 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 making the trip for.
2. Research Marriage License Requirements
Even at a courthouse you can't tie the knot until you get your marriage license, so figuring out 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."
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.
3. 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 married in the past). 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.
4. 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.
5. 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 like to recite your own vows, whether you would 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.
6. Capture the Event on Film
If there's one thing that you should invest in, it's a talented photographer who can 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'll want to work with someone who has shot at that city hall before and is familiar with the surrounding areas, as they'll be best suited to guide you towards amazing photo backdrops.
7. Invite Your Closest Family Members or Friends
One huge benefit of a no-fuss wedding ceremony is that you don't need to adhere to the rules and politics associated with a typical guest list and can pare it down to the chosen few who really mean the world to you. Every city hall will have their own rules and regulations about how many guests can attend, though, so 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 don't extend any invitations until you know the answer.
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.
8. 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 should feel free to choose something as formal or as casual as you'd like; ultimately, it's best to wear whatever you and your partner feel great in, and if that's traditional wedding attire, you should go for it. 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. You could also shop for a short white bridesmaid dress or cocktail frock, which may be more affordable than one labeled specifically for brides.
9. Add Personal Touches
Even if you can't recite your own vows, you can still incorporate some classic wedding 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.
10. Throw a Fun-Filled After-Party
"You'll definitely want to plan a post-ceremony celebration of some sort," says April Maccario, 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.
How long does a courthouse wedding ceremony take?
Every courthouse varies, but a civil ceremony is typically pretty quick, lasting around 10 to 15 minutes.
How many people can you have in a courthouse wedding?
Again, every courthouse has different policies, but you can definitely expect no more than 10 to 15 people max. This includes everyone from the officiant to your photographer and immediate family members.