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What if Your Wedding Wasn't Real?

By Catherine Hodder, Esq. | Last updated on

After months (or probably years) of planning and expenses, what if you found out your marriage was not valid under state law?

After spending over $30k on their wedding day, a pair of Ohio newlyweds are going viral after they discovered their marriage was not legitimate. Their officiant, the bride's grandfather, forgot to mail their marriage license to the probate court to register the marriage before it expired.

When attempting to put her husband on her military health insurance, the bride discovered the license in her paperwork, meaning her grandfather had never sent it to the court. As a result, they did not have a legal marriage.

What Makes a Marriage Legitimate?

To have a real marriage in the eyes of the law, you need a valid marriage license and a ceremony with witnesses. You apply for the marriage license at your local county clerk's office before the wedding ceremony. Typically, there is a waiting period. For example, the waiting period in New York is 24 hours, but in Wisconsin, the waiting period is six days.

An officiant performs the ceremony. However, a marriage ceremony does not have to be a lavish affair. A justice of the peace can marry you, or a legal officiant can handle the duties in case of an elopement.

What Is an Officiant?

A wedding officiant can be religious or non-secular as long as they are ordained. A church or religious institution ordains a religious officiant such as a priest, rabbi, or minister. Some people find online services to join a church and register as a minister. A secular officiant is ordained by the state or county, for example, a judge or justice of the peace. In Florida, a notary public can be a wedding officiant.

A trend in recent years is to have a friend or family member officiate a wedding. In fact, 14% of officiants are loved ones ordained explicitly for a wedding ceremony. However, unlike experienced officiants, they may need to learn the legalities of handling the marriage license.

What Are the Officiant's Responsibilities?

The officiant performs the wedding ceremony. In a religious ceremony, the wedding may be in a church. A civil ceremony is usually in a courthouse, city hall, or event venue. The officiant and witnesses sign the marriage license, and the officiant mails the license to the court which issued it within a specified time frame.

As part of your wedding planning, make sure your officiant knows where to submit the marriage license after the big day.

What if My Marriage Isn't Legitimate?

If you discover that you never filed your marriage license, contact your local county clerk's office. Depending on your jurisdiction, they may have procedures to record a late marriage license.

For example, if you realize you never sent in your marriage license in New Jersey, you can file a delayed report of marriage. First, you would file a request for a marriage certificate (proving the record is not on file). The court records a late marriage if you have documentary proof of your marriage and the marriage occurred within the past seven years. The process is more complex if the ceremony was over seven years ago. You must submit a copy of the marriage license application and documentary proof that the marriage took place.

In the case of the Ohio couple, they missed the 60-day deadline to turn in their marriage license. They happily reported in an adorable TikTok video that they went to the probate office, and the courthouse fixed their error.

I Had the Ceremony, Does It Matter If I Don't Have a Marriage License?

Yes, it does. A ceremony without a marriage license, often called a commitment ceremony, is not a legal marriage.

Marital status confers certain protections and benefits. Among many benefits, legal marriage entitles married couples to:

  • Receive Social Security survivor benefits or other government benefits such as Medicare or disability
  • Get benefits from your employer such as health insurance, life insurance, and pension benefits
  • Inherit a share of the spouse's estate
  • File joint tax returns
  • Receive exemptions for gift and estate taxes for property left to the spouse
  • File for spousal support if you divorce

That's why the recent Respect for Marriage Act is significant. It requires the federal government to provide government benefits to same-sex couples and mandates that all states recognize the legitimacy of same-sex marriages if performed in a state where it is legal.

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