When deciding to get married, there are endless questions. It's never just about the wedding ceremony itself. It's true — the right flower arrangements are essential. But before you get married, you'll also want to learn more about the legal status of marriage, getting a marriage license, and obtaining your marriage certificate after performing the ceremony.
Properly filing marriage records can significantly impact you and your future spouse. Taking the right steps now will cause fewer surprises once you say, "I do."
Read the following FAQs about marriage and consider the additional resources linked below.
Disclaimer: Marriage requirements vary from state to state. Be sure to check your local laws.
Q: What Is the Legal Definition of Marriage?
A: Marriage is usually defined as a contract entered into by two people demonstrating their intent to be spouses in the eyes of the law.
Q: My Partner and I Are Getting Married. What Will We Need to Be Legally Married?
A: Usually, legal requirements include the following premarital steps:
- A marriage license
- A waiting period of up to three days (depending on state laws)
- Minimum ages (if under 18 years of age, you may or may not need parental consent from a legal guardian)
- A marriage ceremony (officiated by clergy or an officer of the court and witnessed by a certain number of witnesses)
- A marriage certificate (signed and issued after the wedding ceremony as proof of the marriage)
Q: How Do I Get a Marriage License?
A: In order to get a marriage license, you will need to fill out a marriage license application.
Most counties have a family court or a probate court with a marriage license division. There are instructions on their website or the clerk of the court's website. You can also call the clerk's office and they will direct you to the appropriate person.
Generally, you will need to:
- Fill out a marriage license application (online or in person).
- Show proof of your identity with legal information documents.
- Pay a small license fee (you may be able to use a credit card).
- Wait up to three days if there is a waiting period (depending on state laws) for it to be processed.
Note: blood tests are no longer required to obtain a marriage license
Q: Which Documents Do I Need to Get a Marriage License?
A: Generally, you will need a form of identification and proof of a Social Security Number (SSN).
For identification, you will need one of the following:
- Valid driver's license
- Birth certificate (original or certified copy)
- Valid state identification card
- Current military identification card
- Current passport
- As proof of your Social Security number, you can use the following:
- Social Security card
- Tax return with your full name and Social Security number
- W-2 or tax form with your full name and Social Security number
Q: How Do I Legally Change My Name?
A: Every state is different. But generally, a name change can occur while applying for a marriage license. Make sure to:
- Add your new last name (and/or new middle name) to the marriage license application.
- Make sure the new last name is on the marriage certificate.
- You can obtain a court order from the appropriate court in your state to change your name. To get a court order, you will need the following documents:
- A certified copy of your marriage license
- A certified copy of your marriage certificate
Q: Who Can Perform the Marriage Ceremony?
A: In most states, the following people can perform a marriage ceremony:
- A judge, magistrate, justice of the peace, or deputy clerk
- A mayor or deputy mayor
- A member of the clergy of any religious denomination (such as a minister, priest, or rabbi)
- A notary
- A lay celebrant authorized by the appropriate court to perform marriages
Q: I Lost My Marriage Certificate! What Do I Do?
A: Don't panic! If you lost your certificate of marriage and need a copy, you can use an affidavit of marriage to prove that you are married.
An affidavit is a legal document (which you swear to under oath) that everything you state in the document is true, subject to penalties for perjury.
Q: Can I Keep My Savings Account Separate From My Spouse's?
A: Continue to keep all separate property (your savings account) separate throughout the marriage. This is important if you want to keep the separate property separate upon divorce or death.
This means you should not "commingle" property you owned prior to marriage (separate property) with the property you and your spouse acquire during the marriage (community or marital property).
Commingling property happens when you mix community property with separate property. For example, when both of you put money into a joint account. In cases of commingling, it may become difficult or impossible to legally determine whether the property is community property or separate property.
Q: My Future Spouse and I Want to Create a Prenuptial Agreement. How Do We Write One?
A: A prenuptial agreement should be written and signed before the wedding ceremony.
Before entering into a prenuptial agreement, each party must fully disclose their assets, income, and liabilities to the other.
Both parties must enter into the prenuptial agreement in good faith. Neither person should misrepresent the facts or take advantage of the other. To ensure enforcement of the premarital agreement, it's a good idea for both future spouses to use separate attorneys. In fact, some states require that a separate attorney represents each party for a premarital agreement to be valid.
Q: What Is “Common Law Marriage"?
A: In family law, a common law marriage is a legal marriage in the eyes of the law, even if the couple has not followed the proper steps to get married.
Usually, the couple must live together and conduct themselves as spouses in public before they are in a common-law marriage.
A common law marriage can still be valid even if the couple has not filed a marriage license application, had a wedding ceremony, or obtained an official marriage certificate. However, this is true only if they meet specific requirements listed in the state laws where they live.
Q: I Owned My Business Before I Got Married. Will the Business Be Considered My Separate Property?
A: Not necessarily. Do not assume that a business you owned prior to marriage remains separate property after the marriage. Community property laws may affect your sole ownership of a business.
If your business increased in value during the marriage (due in part to your spouse's contributions), your spouse may be entitled to a share of the increase in value upon divorce or your death.
A spouse's contribution can be obvious, such as providing bookkeeping services for the business. Other examples of spousal contributions are taking care of the home and taking care of children while you focus on running the business.
Q: Should My Spouse and I File a Joint Tax Return?
A: Ordinarily, filing a joint return will give you a tax advantage. But in some cases, your combined income tax on separate returns may be less than it would be on a joint return.
Determine your tax on both a joint return and separate returns. You can then compare the tax figured under both methods and use the one that results in a lower tax amount. Keep in mind that in cases where married couples file taxes separately, the Internal Revenue Service requires that they both use the same deduction method — itemized or standard.
Still Have Questions About Marriage and the Law? Seek Legal Help
There are many important questions to ask about marriage. When it comes to how the legal status of marriage can affect you and your spouse, it can be confusing. That's where experienced family law attorneys can help. Family law attorneys have dealt with most of your issues and questions many times. Consider reaching out to a family law attorney in your area today.