It’s the kind of drama we usually see on our TV screens: a couple, after many years of wedded bliss, discover that they were never legally married at all. Maybe the city never received their marriage license; maybe the license contained a clerical error or a missing signature. But whatever the reason, the result is the same—our lovebirds aren’t really husband and wife.
On TV, this discovery usually yields plenty of fun, hilarious hijinks (not to mention a wedding episode by the end of the season). But in real life, finding out your marriage isn’t legal is a huge pain in the butt. After all, you’ve spent loads of time, money, and energy planning the perfect wedding—what’s it all for if you’re not married when it’s over?
If you and your partner want to save yourselves a lot of hassle, headache, and cost, it’s best to make sure your marriage is legal the first time around. But how can you be sure? Here are a few steps you should take to ensure your ceremony is by the book.
Have a Legal Officiant Perform the Ceremony
Whether you have a traditional church wedding, an intimate party at home, or an elopement in Vegas, you’re always going to need an officiant. These days, it’s pretty easy to find someone to preside over your wedding. If you’re part of a religious institution, you can simply ask your local pastor (priest, rabbi, etc.) to perform the ceremony, but secular couples can just as easily hire an officiant online. In fact, online religious organizations like The Universal Life Church have made it easy for anyone to get ordained.
However, all these options don’t mean you have free rein to choose your officiant. In Los Angeles (where my husband and I were married by his best friend), your officiant doesn’t even need to prove they are officially ordained; a signature on the license is sufficient. In New York, you can have your friends ordained, but they have to appear at the city clerk’s office in person to become part of the city’s officiant registry. In Virginia, your officiant must be a minister of a religious denomination and must provide proof of both their ordination and their “regular communion with the religious society of which he is a reputed member.”
As you can see, the laws surrounding wedding officiants vary drastically from place to place. If you want your marriage to be legal (and I assume you do), it’s critical that you research the laws in the county and city where you plan to wed and find an officiant who fits the bill.
Say “I Do”
Once you’ve found the perfect officiant (who meets your city’s legal requirements), it’s time to start thinking about the ceremony itself. While most places give you free rein to construct a ceremony that best suits the couple, some places require specific elements for a legal wedding. In Seattle, for example, a marriage isn’t legal unless the couple openly expresses intent to marry, ideally by saying “I do” or “I will” at some point during the ceremony.
If you’re using traditional vows, congratulations—you’re probably covered no matter where you get married. If you’re writing your own vows, however, you’ll have to look into your local laws and work with your officiant to craft a ceremony that suits your personal style and meets the legal requirements.
Take Care of the Marriage License
Your marriage license is one of the last things on your wedding to-do list, but it’s actually one of the most important parts of your wedding. If this license isn’t filled out and filed in your city’s office (the city where you’re getting married—not necessarily the one where you live), there’s no way your marriage will be legal! For this reason, you need to make sure you handle your license with the utmost care.
First, make sure you get your license in enough time to use it on your wedding day. Again, this will vary from state to state; make sure you’re aware of the laws surrounding getting your license (in Kansas, you have to wait three days after applying to receive your license, while in Louisiana you can get your license on the day you apply) and using your license (in Kansas you can get married the day you receive your license, while in Louisiana there’s a three-day waiting period). If you have to postpone your wedding for any reason, make sure you know how long your license is valid for before you apply for another (Kansas: 6 months, Louisiana: 30 days).
Second, make sure your license is signed properly and returned to the city. You cannot have any typos, any missing sections, or any crossed-out portions (if you can, get a blank license from the city clerk to practice on before the big day). Then, you or your officiant must return the license to the city office within the appropriate time frame (usually 30 days—but again, check your local laws).
These steps are more important to the legality of your marriage than anything else, so whatever you do, don’t forget them!