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What is a Marriage License?

Nicole Madison
Updated May 17, 2024
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A marriage license is a legal document that grants a union between two people. Usually, marriage licenses are granted by local, regional or national governments. In some countries, however, religious leaders hold the sole or joint power to issue marriage licenses. In many countries, a couple can have a wedding ceremony and exchange vows, but the union will not be recognized by the government and other legal organizations unless a marriage license was issued first.

In the United States, each state grants marriage licenses and has different requirements and procedures for issuing them. All states, however, require the couple to be of marriageable age, which is usually 18. In some states, a person can obtain a marriage license at a younger age, but he or she must have written, parental consent first.

To obtain a marriage license, both members of the couple must apply for it in person, usually at a clerk of court's office or a similar location. Upon appearing in person, there will be a marriage license application to complete, and each person will be required to present acceptable identification, such as a driver's license, birth certificate or passport. Those applying for a marriage license who were also born outside of the United States may be required to produce additional documentation. If either party was married before, he or she must also provide proof that he or she is no longer married. An official divorce judgment or death certificate of the ex-spouse usually satisfies this requirement.

In some states, the couple must provide proof of vaccination against certain communicable diseases. Some also require those hoping to be married to submit to blood tests and medical examinations. For example, some states require each applicant to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases as well as such things as measles and tuberculosis. Other states have done away with these requirements.

In most places, there is a set waiting period between the time a couple is granted a marriage license and the day on which the ceremony may occur. This waiting period is intended to give each person time to back out. Some states allow this required waiting period to be waived in some cases, including the case where one of the people to be married is set to come to town just before the ceremony is scheduled to take place.

It is the job of the person who performs the wedding ceremony to sign and send the marriage license or a copy of the marriage license to the agency responsible for recording marriage documentation in that location. If the official who performs a wedding ceremony fails to do so, the newlyweds may still be recognized as legally married, but they may have a harder time proving it. Usually, that marriage license is received by the governing body, and a marriage certificate is returned to the couple for use as proof of marriage. In some jurisdictions, a marriage license and a marriage certificate are the same things; in others, a marriage license authorizes a marriage ceremony, whereas a marriage certificate states that the two have been married.

There are a number of reasons for these regulations around marriage. Licenses help a jurisdiction to keep accurate records of the unions of citizens of a particular country or state, and prevent illegal marriages. Some of the rules may also help protect people from unknowingly marrying those who are infected with health-damaging infections.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a WiseGeek writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By anon88506 — On Jun 05, 2010

it is a wonderful thing to be part of this network. But are you forced to have a marriage license?

By anon88489 — On Jun 05, 2010

Sort of pathetic. Not one mention of the newer developments in marriage between same sex and transgendered partners. Right or wrong, it's a very significant development and has changed marriage licenses.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a WiseGeek writer, where she focuses on topics like...
Learn more
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