To get married, you have to go through an official process. It is not enough to just have a ceremony. This may denote your commitment to your intended spouse, yet it does not make you married in the eyes of the law. For a legal marriage to take place, you must properly obtain a marriage license, have the ceremony performed by a licensed officiant, sign the marriage license and then register that license with your county in order to receive your marriage certificate. But what happens if you miss a step, and you or your officiant fails to mail in your marriage license? Are you legally married? It depends on your state law, but most likely, yes.
If you obtained a marriage license, went through the ceremony and then forgot to register the license with the county clerk, you are probably still married – but it depends on state law.
Why You Need a Marriage License
Marriage is not simply a religious or emotional commitment. In many ways, it is a contract between you, another person and the state. To formalize this contract, you need to obtain, properly complete and register a marriage license. That is because with marriage comes a number of legal benefits. You and your spouse will be treated differently and entitled to certain rights and privileges single individuals are not. For instance, as legal spouses, you have the right to file your taxes together, which may provide a financial benefit.
Obtaining a Marriage License
You must obtain the marriage license from a county clerk, which requires presenting proof of your identity; that you are of legal age to marry (or have parental consent); that you have either never been married; or you are divorced. By obtaining a marriage license, you prove you are legally eligible to get married.
You, your spouse, the officiant and at least one witness must sign the license. This is the most important part and is what makes you lawfully married. Everyone signing the license offers evidence that you both agreed to enter into the marriage and that you had an officiant conduct the appropriate ceremony in front of at least one witness.
Registering the Marriage License
The final step is to register the completed marriage license with the state. This is necessary to inform the state you are married. If the license is not registered, the state does not know you are married and you cannot receive your formal marriage certificate. Without a certified marriage certificate, you may not be able to:
- quickly change your last name
- obtain your spouse’s health benefits
- obtain immigration benefits through your spouse
- buy a home together
In most cases, you are still considered married without registering the license. For example, California law requires the officiant to return the marriage license to the county clerk or recorder within 10 days of the ceremony. If, for some reason, this does not happen, you are still married. The accidental failure to record your marriage license is a technical defect, which won't invalidate your marriage. Under Wisconsin law, immaterial irregularities do not void a marriage if it was entered into with the full belief that you were getting married.
However, the significance of registering your marriage license depends on the state in which you were married. If your license was not registered, only that state's marriage laws and relevant court decisions can determine whether you are lawfully married or not.
What Happens if Your Marriage License Expires?
Almost every state’s marriage license expires within a certain number of days after it is issued by the county clerk. Many states, like Wisconsin, say a license is valid for 30 days, others, like California, issue a marriage license for as long as 90 days. If your license expires before the official ceremony takes place, then you must obtain a new marriage license.
How Do I Know if My Marriage License Was Filed?
Some states and counties in the U.S. automatically send out an informal or a certified copy of the marriage certificate. In other states and counties, including California, you must request an informal or certified copy of the certificate. If your county does not automatically send you a certificate, then you must trust that your new spouse or your officiant put it in the mail and that the mail carrier got it to the right place. Or, call the county clerk or register to ask.