Marriage Law Overview

Marriage represents a lifetime commitment between two partners. While this partnership typically involves mutual romantic interest, such marriages are also legal contracts that confer special rights and responsibilities to the married couple.

For instance, married couples are not bound by hospital visitation restrictions and are eligible for survivor benefits if a partner dies. They can also receive Social Security benefits. Additionally, the possessions of married couples are normally shared (and divided if the marriage ends).

This section covers the basics of marriage law, including marriage license requirements, state-specific marriage license information, the meaning of marital property, and how to obtain the legal status of a valid marriage.

Marriage Laws at a Glance

In family law, marriage laws are determined by state laws. State laws on marriage determine:

  • Valid marriage requirements
  • Common law marriage requirements
  • The minimum age required for child marriages (with and without parental consent)
  • Whether blood tests are required
  • When a marriage is eligible for annulment
  • How marital property is divided in the event of a divorce

However, federal courts and federal law have intervened in certain marriage issues.

The United States Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2015 landmark decision Obergefell v. Hodges that the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution requires all states to license same-sex marriages between same-sex couples. Additionally, all states must recognize all lawful, out-of-state marriages.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization raised concerns that same-sex marriages and interracial marriages were vulnerable and may no longer be recognized as legal rights or valid marriages.

The United States Congress and the President

Out of concern after Dobbs, the Respect for Marriage Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden in 2022. The Respect for Marriage Act protects same-sex and interracial marriages. It also repeals the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act stated:

“[T]he word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word 'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife."

The Respect for Marriage Act repealed this language and now defines “marriage" as between two "individuals."

Legal Requirements for Getting Married

In family law, each state has different requirements for the process of entering a valid marriage.

Usually, future married couples will need to:

  • Get a marriage license
  • Wait 0-3 days (before or after) receiving a marriage license (known as a waiting period)
  • Participate in a marriage ceremony
  • Receive a marriage certificate
  • File the marriage certificate (as proof of your marriage)

Marriage License Requirements

In family law, jurisdictions (states) have different requirements for a marriage license.

Generally, couples will need to:

  • Fill out a marriage license application (online or in person) and pay a fee
  • Wait 0-3 days (before or after) receiving a marriage license (known as a waiting period)
  • Receive a marriage license

Marriage License Application

In order to get a marriage license, the premarital couple will have to go to the local county clerk's office and pay a fee to file a marriage license application. Some states allow you to fill out a form online.

You will need photo identification (usually a driver's license), proof of residence, and a birth certificate. If you have been divorced or widowed, you will need a copy of the divorce decree or death certificate. Most states have ended blood test requirements (an old method to test for diseases).

In most cases, partners can get married at the courthouse. Additionally, partners can also have a separate ceremony officiated by someone legally qualified (like an ordained minister).

Waiting Periods

Some states require couples to wait either before or after receiving a marriage license. Each state has different waiting periods.

While waiting periods may seem inconvenient, they are intended to ensure that the future married couple is ready to make a big commitment.

States with no waiting periods:

States with waiting periods:

When Will I Receive My Marriage License?

You should receive a marriage license after 1) filling out a marriage license application and 2) waiting during your state's waiting period.

It is important to remember that some marriage licenses expire after a certain amount of time. So, you should have your wedding ceremony or get married at the courthouse shortly after getting your marriage license.

Some marriage licenses expire 30 days after issuance (Oklahoma), while other marriage licenses expire after one year (Arizona). In other jurisdictions (including the District of Columbia), marriage licenses never expire.

Click on a link below for more general information about marriage laws.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

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  • Marriages involving prenups, significant debt, child custody issues, and property questions may need an attorney

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Marriage is an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries (including your spouse!) to your will. Consider creating a power of attorney to ensure your spouse can access your financial accounts. Also, a health care directive lets your spouse make your medical decisions if you ever become incapacitated.

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