While the ceremony and celebration are the most memorable parts of a wedding, if you want it to be legal, the most important part is the signing of the marriage license. This document legally binds the two of you together—and plays a big role if you're planning on changing your name. Obtaining a marriage license and, subsequently, a marriage certificate is a multistep process.
What Is a Marriage License?
A marriage license is a legal document obtained by a couple prior to marriage. Once the license is signed (during or after your ceremony) and returned by an officiant to the county, a marriage certificate is issued.
What's the difference between a marriage license and a marriage certificate? A marriage license is what you get first, and it's basically an application to be married. Once you have filled it out, had your ceremony, gotten it signed, and your officiant has turned it back into the county, then you receive a marriage certificate. "The marriage certificate is a certified copy the married couple will receive post-wedding, which proves they are officially married," says D. Bruce Hanes, Esq., Montgomery County Register of Wills, Clerk of Orphans' Court.
Meet the Expert
D. Bruce Hanes, Esq. has been the Montgomery County Register of Wills, Clerk of Orphans' Court in Pennsylvania for over 12 years.
Here's everything you need to do, step-by-step, to get (and complete) your marriage license and marriage certificate.
Step 1: Set a Date and Place for Your Wedding
Before you can apply for a marriage license, you need to know where and when you'll be getting married. Why? Because you typically have to file your marriage license application in the county in which you'll be getting married.
Furthermore, marriage licenses expire. Some, for example, expire after 90 days. If you're planning your wedding one year in advance of the date, then you have to wait to apply for the marriage license until you're within the deadline. Otherwise, you'll end up having to apply all over again, which is the last thing a couple wants to do when they're busy wedding planning.
On the other hand, you can't wait until the very last minute either. According to Hanes, "There's typically a few day waiting period from filing to getting your license. You should plan to file at least one week before your wedding to make sure everything works out." In Texas, for example, you must wait at least 72 hours before getting married after you apply for a marriage license to actually get married, meaning that if you put this off until two to three days before the wedding, the license wouldn't be valid.
Once you know when you're getting married, you can plan your visit to the county clerk.
Step 2: Visit the County Clerk
The easiest place to go for your marriage license is the county clerk's office. "If all documentation is in order, you can plan to spend about an hour there," says Hanes. You can even try to make an appointment beforehand so that you don't have to wait too long.
You and your significant other must both be present at the time of the marriage license application.
Here's everything else you need to be prepared for during your visit to the county clerk:
- Make sure you don't show up empty-handed, as you'll both need to show proof of your identity. Each state's requirements are a little different, so be sure to check with your county clerk before heading in to find out what they specifically require. Typically, however, you'll need a driver's license or passport, but you may also need a birth certificate.
- Some states even require a witness for the marriage license application, so be prepared to ask a family member or friend (who has known you at least six months) to tag along.
- You will also need to know some information about your parents. You will need both your parents' full birth names, birthdates, birth states, and dates of passing, if applicable.
- If it's not your first marriage, you will also need to bring your certificate of divorce or the death certificate, respectively, as proof that you are able to legally remarry. "It's quite common for previously married individuals to forget to bring official documentation of their separation to their appointment," says Hanes.
- If you're under 18, you'll need to bring a parent to provide consent.
- There is a fee to apply for a marriage license, typically between $35 and $150, depending on your state and county (yet another expense to add to your wedding budget). "People often forget to bring check or cash to their appointment and most offices don't take credit cards. Make sure you show up prepared with proper payment," warns Hanes.
- If you are planning on changing your name—during your visit to the county clerk to apply for your marriage license—now is the best time to do that. While you will still retain your maiden name until you actually get married, this will let the court officially know what your new name will be. Not only do you need to know what you want your official last name to be, but your middle name, as well. You have many options, of course: You can keep your name exactly the same. You can take your partner's name (or vice versa). Heck, the two of you can legally even make an entirely new last name. If you haven't decided if you're going to change your name, you can, of course, wait until a later time. However, if you wait, the only way to alter it down the road is through an official name change, which costs hundreds of dollars. So, if you can figure out what you'd like to do before obtaining your marriage license, it'll save you time and money down the road.
- Once you've proven your identity, turned in your paperwork, and paid your fee, you'll be granted a marriage license. Some states will hand you the marriage license right then and there, but others will mail it out to you within a few days.
You can hyphenate your maiden name with your partner's last name. Another common option is to replace your middle name with your maiden name.
Step 3: Get Signatures From Your Officiant and Marriage License Witnesses
Now that you have your marriage license, it's time to gather up some signatures. While the requirements for signing a marriage license vary from state to state, most require signatures from the following people:
Naturally, the couple must be present when it's time to sign the marriage license post-ceremony. It's better to get this taken care of early on before the party gets going and the drinks start flowing. This is one wedding detail you do not want to forget.
Whoever legally performed your ceremony, whether it was a judge, a religious leader, or a friend ordained for the day, must also sign the license. There will be a line for them to sign their name, as well as specify their title or ordination. But note: There are a few states (Colorado, Wisconsin, the District of Columbia, and parts of Pennsylvania) where you can self-unite or self-solemnize your marriage, which means that not only does the officiant not need to sign your marriage license, you don't have to have one in the first place.
These could be your parents, your maid of honor and best man, or any other friends you nominate for the honor. They must be physically present and, well, watch the two of you sign the marriage license. In most states, the marriage license witnesses must also be over the age of 18. Typically you will need two witnesses, but in some states, you only need one.
Step 4: The Officiant Turns in the Completed Marriage License to the County
After the ceremony, it's the officiant's responsibility to return the marriage license to the county clerk, either by mail or in person. After that, you're all set. Depending on where you live, you will either be mailed a certified copy, or you will need to go in person to pick up certified copies (in which case, prepare yourself for another fee).
You might be wondering, though, why you even need these copies if it's all official. You'll need certified copies of your marriage certificate for a number of things. For example, you may need to send copies of it to change your marital status for insurance (car, health, etc.), Social Security (if you're changing your name), your credit cards, your bank accounts, and the IRS, just to name a few. "Obtaining three copies of the certified marriage certificate for these tasks should be sufficient," notes Hanes. "You can always contact the local county clerk to order more certified copies of your certificate if you need them at any time down the line."