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Things to Do Before You Get Married

By Jenny Tsay, Esq. | Updated by Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

As you and your significant other prepare for your wedding day, ensuring all the legal boxes are checked is paramount — lest an unknown deal breaker pops up.

So, before you get wrapped up in the excitement of becoming newlyweds, take a moment to digest some essential legal marriage advice to avoid any surprises that could disrupt your journey into married life.

Make Sure You’re Not Already Married

No, we’re not just talking about the Ed Helms in The Hangover. Even if you didn’t get blackout drunk in Vegas and end up at a wedding chapel, you could already be in a marriage you didn’t know about through common-law marriage. Before you plan to get married, it's crucial to ensure you're not already in this situation, as this can legally bind you just like a traditional marriage would. It's a non-negotiable to verify your marital status, as unintentional bigamy could spoil the legal sanctity of your future nuptials.

In places where common-law marriages are recognized, living together and presenting yourselves as a married couple can result in a marriage just as legally valid as one with a formal ceremony and license. Therefore, if you're in a common-law marriage, you must legally divorce before you can remarry, going through the same divorce procedures involving property division, alimony, and child custody.

Since laws vary by state, not all jurisdictions recognize common-law marriage. Check out our list of common-law marriage states to see if it applies to you, or our FAQ page for more answers. Since it can be tricky to tell whether you’re in a common law marriage, it's wise to consult with a legal expert to help clarify these matters. That way, when you say "I do" to your future spouse, it's with complete confidence that your union is the only one on the books.

The Name Game

Another thing both partners should do before they get married is decide if either (or both) want to change their names before they get married. Remember, though, that there's no legal obligation for either partner to change their last name. Whether you keep your own names, hyphenate, or e entirely, the choice is yours (and your partner's). Discuss your options openly and find what feels right for both of you.

Unfortunately, marriage law is not egalitarian regarding heterosexual marriages. If the wife wants to change her last name to the same as her husband's, then all she needs is the marriage certificate to update agencies and organizations about her name change. This is the case in all states. But less than half of states will allow men to do the same without a court order.

Finally, consider the logistics. Changing your name can involve updating a surprising number of agencies and businesses (driver's license, passport, bank accounts, utility bills, etc.). Inform loved ones and professional contacts about your name change well in advance to avoid confusion.

Money Talks

Before you walk down the aisle, have an honest conversation with your partner about your financial situation. This includes both your debts and assets. It's especially crucial if you live in a community property state. In these states, anything acquired after marriage, from salaries to investment earnings or even the house you buy together, becomes marital property. A potential divorce could mean splitting this property 50/50, prenup aside. Understanding your partner's spending habits and future financial goals is key. After all, their approach to money can significantly impact your own financial well-being – for better or worse. Open communication about finances now can set the stage for a more secure and harmonious financial future together.

We Want a Prenup!

While the idea might not sound the most romantic, prenuptial agreements (prenups) are a handy legal tool and are more common than you might think. You’ll want to start discussing this and have it completed and signed before the marriage.

A prenup encourages open discussions about finances, debts, and asset protection. It helps determine how pre-marital property and future earnings are divided if things don't work out. For couples with existing children, a prenup can establish a custody plan, reducing future stress.

But there are certain restrictions on what can be included in a prenup agreement. Additionally, if a prenup isn’t drafted correctly, it is invalid, meaning that your spouse maybe automatically entitled to half of all your money and property. Thus, it’s best to hire a prenup lawyer to make sure everything is in order and legally enforceable.

License to Thrive

Before you can celebrate "I do," you'll need a marriage license to make your union official.

There are some general requirements across states for who can qualify to get a marriage license, such as age restrictions (18 is most common, but some states allow 16 with parental consent). Also, be sure to check for any pre-marital counseling requirements that might affect the timeline. What’s required for a marriage license varies by state, so you can check out our guide to marriage licenses by state for your specific case.

Generally, you’ll need to gather documents, apply, and pay a fee. Typically, you'll both need valid government-issued photo IDs (driver's licenses or passports) and proof of Social Security numbers. If either of you has been married before, you'll likely need certified copies of divorce decrees or death certificates (if a spouse has passed away).

While some states offer online applications, most require you to appear together in person at the designated government office (often the probate court or county clerk's office). Call ahead to confirm hours of operation and if appointments are necessary. Marriage license fees are typically modest (around $50-$100) but can vary by state or county. Be prepared to pay with cash, check, or debit card (credit cards may not be accepted everywhere).

Another think to keep in mind is the timeline. Don't assume you'll walk out with a license on the spot. Processing times can vary from a few minutes to several days, so apply well in advance of your wedding date. Finally, know that there’s an expiration date on your marriage license. Most are valid for 30-60 days after issuance. Make sure your wedding falls within that window to avoid any last-minute scrambles.

Finally, after your ceremony, don't forget to return the signed license to the issuing office within the designated timeframe (usually 30 days) to finalize the marriage registration process. This is crucial to receive your official marriage certificate.

Make Sure the Officiant is Official

Saying "I do" legally requires ensuring your officiant has the authority to bind you in matrimony. While most states empower judges, ministers, and religious leaders to perform weddings, regulations vary. Some states even recognize online ordinations for officiants! Don't leave your marriage's legitimacy to chance. Head to your state or local government's website to find a clear breakdown of who can legally officiate weddings in your area. This simple step ensures your special day is as official as it is romantic.

Get Professional Help

And we don’t just mean hiring a wedding planner. Navigating the legal landscape of marriage can be complex, and sometimes you might need professional guidance to ensure everything is in order.

If you don’t know where to start, FindLaw has a free guide to hiring a marriage lawyer. If you're looking for expert advice to make sure your path to the altar is smooth, our comprehensive lawyer directory can connect you with a legal professional who can provide personalized assistance for your unique situation.

As the wedding planning comes to a close and your big day approaches, remember that a successful marriage begins with understanding, from legalities to love languages. If you intend to marry your best friend and keep it that way, open communication is key. Keep these tips in mind to navigate the complexities of married life with confidence and joy.

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