State laws determine the specific legal steps for a valid marriage. Different states set different requirements for a legal marriage. This includes regulation of:
- Marriage licenses
- License fees
- Blood test requirements
- When to file a marriage license application
- Waiting periods
- Who may officiate a marriage ceremony
- Requirements for a marriage certificate
Additionally, state law determines the age requirements for obtaining a marriage license (without parental consent or legal guardian consent). It also determines the method for classifying and distributing marital property.
Federal law protects certain marriages. In 2015, the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges held that states must license same-sex marriages. Obergefell also stated that all states must recognize all non-resident marriages performed in other states as valid marriages.
In 2022, Congress passed the Respect for Marriage Act. The Act protects same-sex marriages (defined as marriages between 2 individuals) and interracial marriages. Furthermore, the Respect for Marriage Act requires states to recognize pre-existing same-sex marriages as valid. It also requires States to respect marriages conducted by non-state residents.
Obtaining a Marriage License
Premarital couples need a marriage license in order to get married.
To get a marriage license, premarital couples must fill out a marriage license application at the local county clerk's office. The requirements for a marriage application are different in every state.
Generally, some states require a wait of 1-3 days (waiting period) after filling out a marriage license application before the clerk will issue a marriage license. Other states do not have a waiting period and will issue a marriage license after completing and submitting the marriage license application.
When applying for a marriage license, each party will need to provide documentation such as:
- Photo identification (usually a driver's license)
- Birth certificate (original or certified copy)
- Social security number
- Death certificate of prior spouse (if applicable)
- Divorce decree (if there are previous marriages which ended in divorce)
After the issuance of a marriage license, premarital couples can proceed with a marriage ceremony, followed by the issuance of a marriage certificate after the ceremony.
The marriage certificate should be filed in the clerk's marriage records after the wedding ceremony as proof that the marriage took place. Usually, a state's department of health and vital records maintains marriage records for the state as a whole.
States no longer require premarital couples to take blood tests before issuing a marriage license.
Previously, some states required blood tests for premarital couples because of a public health concern to screen for certain diseases such as gonorrhea, syphilis, or rubella. For example, Montana required blood tests for women before marriage. However, in 2019 Montana repealed that law, and the state no longer requires blood tests.
Laws for Minors
In family law, state laws also determine the minimum age required for marital consent.
Typically, 18 years of age is the minimum age for marriage. However, minors can use a waiver if they are under 18 years of age. Minors who obtain parental consent, or legal guardian consent, can get married.
Some states have different age requirements. For example, Mississippi requires individuals to be 21 years of age before marriage, with parental consent or legal guardian consent for those under 21. Nebraska's minimum age is 19 years of age, with parental consent or legal guardian consent for those under 19.
Massachusetts recently changed its laws to prohibit child marriages. In Massachusetts, only individuals 18 years of age or older can get married. Massachusetts does not accept parental consent or legal guardian consent for minors under 18 years of age.
Annulment and Prohibited Marriage Laws
Most states prohibit certain marriages, such as:
- Marriages between close relatives (varies by state)
- Individuals with multiple spouses (polygamy)
- Marriages entered through fraud or force
The court may annul prohibited marriages. Annulment differs from divorce. Annulment is like the marriage never existed.
Marital Property Laws
Property acquired by either spouse during the marriage is marital property.
Upon death or divorce, marital property is divided between the parties in accordance with state law. Most states use a system of equitable distribution to determine what is best for both parties given several factors: earning potential, financial needs, length of the marriage, whether dependent children are involved, etc.
Some states use community property laws. Under community property law, marital property (and marital debt) is generally divided equally.
In addition to Puerto Rico, the following states recognize community property when dividing assets and liabilities:
- New Mexico
Click on a link below to learn more about the marriage laws in your state and visit the State Laws section for additional details. If you have questions, reach out to a family law attorney in your area. A family law attorney can advise you about the marriage and property laws in your state.