What are the legal requirements for marriage?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jun 29, 2022

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The legal requirements for marriage vary between states. Although there are differences between the requirements in the various states, a marriage performed in one state will generally be recognized by every other state under the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution. Likewise, a marriage performed overseas is usually valid in any state as long as the marriage was legal in the jurisdiction where it occurred.

Formal and Informal Marriage Requirements

Most states require that there be a marriage license issued by the county clerk or clerk of the court, which includes the payment of a fee. After issuance, a marriage license will usually be valid for one month to a year, depending on state law. This simply means that the marriage ceremony must occur within this time period.

Some states also require that couples satisfy a waiting period from the time the marriage license is applied for, to the time the license is issued. In these states, the couple will not receive the marriage license until 1–7 days after applying. Many states, even if they do not require the waiting period between the application of the license and the issuance, require a 1–5 day waiting period between the issuance of the marriage license and the marriage ceremony. The purpose of these required waiting periods is to ensure that the parties have sufficient time to think about the marriage before they go through with it. However, waiting periods can generally be waived, for good reason, by a judge.

For example, suppose a couple plans a wedding in a state that requires them to wait three days after the issuance of the license to have the ceremony. However, the couple cannot get to the state until the day before the wedding, leaving them one day to get the marriage license. This is a typical case in which a judge will usually find that there is good reason to waive the waiting period.

Also required in most states is a performance of a marriage ceremony. Generally, the ceremony must involve witnesses to the marriage as well as a marriage officiant, or a person recognized by the state to have the authority to perform the marriage ceremony. Ceremonies may be either civil or religious. In a civil ceremony, a government official or a judge will perform the ceremony. In most states, either one or two witnesses must sign the marriage license after the completion of the ceremony. Thereafter, the marriage license must be filed with the state and the couple will receive a copy of the marriage license and a marriage certificate. The marriage license is proof of the legal union, and the certificate is usually just a keepsake of the ceremony.

Some states recognize what is called a common law marriage. A common law marriage is when a couple has cohabited and held themselves out as being married for a certain number of years. In this situation, the couple generally does not need to go through any of the above formalities, such as getting a marriage license or having a ceremony, to make the marriage legally valid.

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Other Types of Marriage Requirements

All states have a minimum age requirement to get married, as well as an exception to the age requirement with parental consent. The majority of states require that both individuals be 18 or older to marry, but allow individuals that are 16 or 17 to get married with the consent of their parents. In some states, mandatory counseling is required for minors planning to marry. Some states will allow minors younger than 16 to marry with the consent of a parent and sometimes a judge.

Other common state marriage laws require that the individuals have sufficient mental capacity, the couple are not close blood relatives (e.g. first cousins or closer), a blood test or proof of immunity or vaccination for certain diseases, or proof of the termination of any prior marriages by death, divorce or annulment. A few states even require that there be consummation of the marriage by the act of sexual relations.


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