Witnesses signing a marriage license
The couples I serve may feel I begin to sound like a broken record given the number of times I remind them about the marriage license. But I cannot emphasize enough how important this document is if you want your wedding ceremony to result in a legal marriage. No valid license? No marriage!Shopping for wedding dresses, picking out flowers, and tasting cake choices may be more fun, but you absolutely cannot overlook this task. Nor can you delegate it to anyone else. The couple shoulders complete responsibility for obtaining the proper license and ensuring it is valid for both their wedding date and in the place where they are solemnizing their marriage. They do not have to go it alone however. Officiants should know state marriage law concerning the license as well as they know the backs of their hands.
I encourage couples to partner with their officiant. Never be afraid to ask questions about the marriage license. It is the very first thing I talk to my couples about when we meet at our initial consultation!Alas, upon arriving for a wedding, I have been presented with:
- a license that was not valid until two days after the wedding
- a license that had expired and was no longer valid
- a mail away license that was incomplete and had not been signed yet by the Clerk of Courts
- a license from another state that was not valid here in Florida.
The clerk in the other state told the couple it would be valid in Florida! One would think the clerk would know better. Which simply proves my point. It is the couple's responsibility, but they do have plenty of resources besides the officiant. The internet! Simply go to the website of the state in which the ceremony will be held
. Search for "marriage license" and see what the state law has to say about it. The legal language isn't typically too difficult to comprehend, unlike some legislation which can be absolutely incomprehensible. Go to the Clerk of Courts website for the county in which the ceremony will be held
and do another search for "marriage license." Remember, where you reside has naught to do with your marriage license. Ceremony location, ceremony location, ceremony location!
Read carefully! Each state is different. You can obtain a license in any county in Florida and it is valid for a ceremony anywhere else within the state. I believe ceremonies in New Jersey must be performed in the same county or township where the couple got the license (but don't hold me to that, I don't live in New Jersey and haven't officiated a wedding there in at least six years). Florida licenses have a very clear 60 day window in which the ceremony must be held. Licenses in Washington, DC never expire. Florida is extraordinarily lenient concerning who can officiate ceremonies and what can be said during a ceremony. Other states retain tighter control over officiants and have specific requirements that must be included in the ceremony. Please educate yourselves and know the law. There is almost nothing worse for an officiant than to be handed an invalid license and thus have to break the news to the couple their wedding will not mark the beginning of their lives together as legally recognized spouses. It breaks out heart to have to break yours!
Jen and Brandon's non-denominational Christian wedding at the Porcher House.
In the United States, the type of wedding has no bearing on whether the ceremony results in a legal marriage. Provided the couple has obtained a marriage license
in the state in which the ceremony is behind held and the ceremony occurs during the valid dates, the couple is married no matter what kind of service they choose to have. Likewise, either kind of ceremony without
a license will result in a symbolic commitment rather than a legal marriage.People tend to associate religious weddings with houses of worship and civil weddings with a trip to the courthouse. They assume if a member of the clergy presides over the ceremony it is likely to be religious while a secular officiant such as a notary or clerk of court presides over civil ceremonies. While these may be common expectations, they are not entirely accurate. Especially since so many weddings are now held at venues that are not houses of worship or courthouses.
I have officiated weddings for many couples on the deck of the Hilton Melbourne Beach Oceanfront
, for example, and would estimate that about half are religious and half secular. The content of the ceremony determines whether or not the wedding is considered religious or civil (secular).
Religious ceremonies reflect the faith or faiths of the couple and typically include prayer, scripture and rites specific to the particular faith community. Civil ceremonies are every bit as lovely and meaningful, but simply use secular language and rituals rather than religious. Many couples today opt for a middle ground and choose a “spiritual” ceremony in which a religious feeling is evoked, sacramental language such as “sacred covenant” or “holy matrimony” is used, but no specific religious doctrines concerning marriage are referenced.When seeking the services of an independent officiant, the couple should first decide what type of ceremony they feel is most appropriate. Knowing this in advance will help narrow down the field of suitable officiants
. Some members of the clergy are perfectly happy to preside over civil ceremonies and some civil officiants are entirely comfortable performing religious ceremonies. But some are not, so this is a question that should be asked when hiring an independent officiant. The couple's expectations for their wedding absolutely must come first, so an officiant not willing to accommodate their preferences should be ruled out immediately.Whether the ceremony includes a passage of scripture or a secular poem, "Ave Maria" or "All You Need is Love," a Christian Unity Candle or a secular Sand Ceremony,
ends with the Breaking of the Glass or Jumping the Broom
; the focus of the wedding should be on the couple - their unique personalities, love for one another, and decision to create a life together.Photo Attribute: Lisa Marshall Photography
By far, the two most common inquiries I have received over the last few months have to do with marriage licenses and wedding time capsules. I'll tackle the more important first.
Check back for additional information about time capsules another day. Soon, I promise.
Fake Marriage License
Yes, I have had people ask about producing what amounts to a counterfeit marriage license.
No, your officiant cannot make up a dummy license for you in lieu of one from the state. Neither can you give your officiant a made up license and pass it off to him or her as real. Well, I suppose you can, but you definitely should not. I am not sure what the exact legal term would be, but the word "fraud" springs to mind. It is definitely highly unethical.
I provide my couples with a keepsake marriage certificate - "Certificate of Marriage" in calligraphy with a couple of raised seals, but I make it very clear it is not a legal document. It does not function as a marriage license, which is the legal document from the statement proving your marriage is valid. If you have ever seen a marriage license, you can tell from the picture on the right that the keepsake certificate cannot remotely be confused with a license.
Hiding the Absence of a License
I also had someone ask me what the repercussions would be if she simply did not tell her minister she did not have a license. Since the officiant is typically required to review the license prior to the ceremony, this strategy is not going to get her very far. Especially if she is being married in a denomination that refuses to solemnize commitment ceremonies and will only permit their clergy to officiate weddings that result in a legal marriage. Trust me on this one, a competent officiant knows to ask for the license. Besides, we have to sign it after the ceremony. We are going to register its absence.
Photo Attribute: Susan Eaton
Rev. Fuller signing a keepsake certificate (not the license!)
Another person asked, "If I get married right now and no one knows, will they let me get a new license when I have a wedding?" This is likely someone who is eloping or having a small private courthouse ceremony who wants to have a larger wedding with all that entails at a later date.
Once you obtain a marriage license, solemnize the marriage and file that license with the state (i.e. "get legally married"), there is absolutely no reason to obtain a second license when you get around to having a wedding. It may even take the clerk a few minutes to wrap his or her brain around what you are asking. So the easy answer to this question, is "no." Multiple marriage licenses for the same couple will not be issued.
By all means, you can have a traditional social wedding if you are already married though. This is actually not all that uncommon, especially in areas with a military presence. I have officiated a number of such "vow renewal" weddings for couples already legally married. Sometimes everyone present understands the circumstances, and sometimes the couple treats the day as if it is the first day of their marriage. In any case, there is absolutely no need for a second license. Just plan the wedding and have fun.
A wedding does not make a couple married.
Many people find this an odd statement to make. Of course couples are married in a wedding ceremony, that is the whole point right?
While this is a perfectly reasonable assumption to make, it is not technically a true statement. Couples can be, and usually are, married in a wedding ceremony. This is indeed often the intent, but without a valid marriage license from the state, no wedding ceremony by itself
can render the couple legally married. If you do not have a license, but your minister performs a wedding ceremony in your church, you are not married. If you do not have a license, but a notary public performs a wedding ceremony on a beautiful Florida beach at sunset, you are not married.
Marriage in the United States is and always has been a civil contract legally defined by the state. Here’s how it works. Two people decide they want to enter into a committed partnership for the rest of their lives and allow the other party exclusivity to meet certain needs. If the couple wants the approximately 1,400 legal rights and economic benefits conferred upon married couples in the United States, they have to get a marriage license - not from their officiant, but from the state. Couples intending their wedding ceremony to result in a legal marriage must be in possession of a valid license in accordance with the laws of the state. This is one of those tasks, like trying on the bridal gown, which absolutely cannot be designated to anyone else. The couple is entirely responsible for obtaining their marriage license.
The laws vary slightly from state to state, but are essentially the same. The couple applies for a marriage license with the appropriate state agency, provides proof of identity attesting they are free to marry, pays a fee and there you have it. I have more detailed information for couples getting married in Florida available in this document
on my Wedding Help page. That’s an important detail. You must obtain a license from the state where the ceremony will take place
. So if one lives in New Hampshire, the other is deployed in Texas, and the ceremony is being held in Virginia…you have to have a Virginia marriage license.
Officiants do not technically marry anyone. The two individuals marry one another by expressing an intent to be married in the presence of an individual with the authority to sign the license. The officiant, whether clergy, notary public, or justice of the peace, is simply a witness acting as an agent of the state who declares in essence, “Yes I saw it happen, they did it!”
Because this document is so critical, I spend a fair amount of time explaining the process to the couple when I meet with them. It’s so easy in my state it makes me look brilliant. That’s not a bad way to start a consultation appointment.
I also provide a document outlining the procedure so the couple does not have to remember exactly what I have said if they were too excited to pay close attention. A few days before the ceremony I contact the couple reminding them to bring the license to the ceremony venue and ask whom they have designated to be responsible for it. I need to know whom to stalk when I arrive. If I am not in possession of a valid license I may very well have to quickly edit the ceremony. I cannot refer to their union as a marriage and am prohibited from declaring them married.
Easy enough, right?
Right.Photo Attribute: 3 Design Photography
Another reason I prefer to arrive on site early is to give someone time to retrieve the license if it has been forgotten in the typical hustle and bustle of the wedding day preparations. Hopefully, the document is not too far away. The first time this happened at one of my weddings, we dispatched a bridesmaid to retrieve the license. She dashed to the bride’s home and grabbed it off the microwave. I would not recommend that as a suitable spot for filing important paperwork, but that is just me.
I have had one couple who simply never got around to applying for their license. Fortunately, they were relaxed about the situation and shrugged it off. They greeted me upon arrival with the news and helped me reword their wedding as a symbolic ceremony, then handled the legal side of things at a later date.
Then there was Hannah and Doug (names changed).
I met with Hannah and Doug in person several months before their big day, so I know they had to have sat through my “here’s how you get the marriage license” spiel. They would have received the printed information as well. I am certain I mentioned the license in a subsequent email, but cannot recall if I specifically asked who would be in possession of it upon my arrival at the hotel. So I may very well have contributed to what came next by neglecting to do so. I have not made that mistake since.
I spotted the groom as I was setting up my microphone and waved him over. I asked if he had the marriage license and immediately sensed something was wrong when I received a blank look as a response. “The marriage license,” I prompted again. “Do you have it, does Hannah or have you given it to someone else.” His face now changed to a look of confusion mixed with a modicum of panic. “Maybe Hannah has it, she’s in room 218.” Fair enough, I’m off to room 218.
Hannah was pretty much ready to head down the aisle, her photographer was taking the final “dressing room” shots with the bridesmaids when I walked in. I asked Hannah for the license and she looked me squarely in the eye responding, “I thought you had it.” Me? Why would I have it?
“No, no one has given it to me yet.” I replied.
She answered, “You didn’t get it for us?”
The photographer is standing there with his mouth hanging open. I am struggling for a tactful response when one of her bridesmaids comes to my rescue blurting out, “You have got to be kidding, don’t tell me you and Doug didn’t go get your marriage license?”
I assured the bride everything would work out well in the end, but did have to inform her the ceremony would be modified slightly and would not result in her being legally married. I then had to go back downstairs and break the same news to the groom. My fears of an emotional outburst were unfounded as the two were absolutely gracious about the situation.
Weddings come with a fair amount of reasonable turmoil and I knew these two were not going to absorb any detailed instructions in the best of circumstances, so I told them to just call me the minute they got back from their honeymoon. They did and we met at a local courthouse where I explained to the clerk we needed to waive the waiting period. This particular clerk is one of my favorites and issued a license valid that very day without subjecting us to the third degree. Hannah, Doug and I stepped out into the corridor, signed the necessary paperwork and I assured them a few times they were indeed legally husband and wife—now, this very minute, this second. I also warned Doug he did not have to remember the date of his anniversary as he was required to live up to the expectations of a ten day anniversary season every year.
Seriously, do not forget the license. It really is a bit more than just a piece of paper.
<And again, the names are changed to protect the guilty!>
Cindy and Josh, from out-of-state, had a destination beach wedding at one of our oceanfront hotels. I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet them prior to their wedding day and found them as delightful as their phone calls and emails had indicated they would be. They were exuberant, warm and funny people. This was, however, one of those occasions where I desperately needed the wedding to start promptly because Josh and his groomsmen were hanging out in the bar. They weren’t sloppy, but they were definitely making a beeline to rowdy. Up in the hotel suite, Cindy and her bridesmaids were not far behind. This was a wedding party with a party attitude.
When all was said and done, the wedding itself was not particularly remarkable. That’s actually a good thing, because when there is something to remark upon it’s usually because something went wrong or someone did something embarrassing. Cindy and Josh had a perfectly normal ceremony. They didn’t have anything to remark upon until later, as in the next day later.
Once it has been signed by the officiant, anyone may return the completed license to the courthouse for certification and filing. I encourage couples to let me take that responsibility because I know the process, my children are on soccer fields almost next door to one of our county’s courthouses almost every day of the week and, all right I admit it, I’m a bit of a control freak. I prefer to know for certain the license was filed within the required ten days following the ceremony. I give couples a choice and most do opt to have me return the license to the courthouse, thereby saving them one more task. Cindy and Josh wanted to do it themselves.
On Monday, I received a phone call from Cindy asking me where I had put the license when I was done with it. I told her Josh had asked me to give it to him. Fifteen minutes later another slightly more panicked phone call, “Josh can’t find it. Did you see what he did with it?” I told her I hadn’t, but if necessary I could meet them the following day at the courthouse located near the highway on their route home. She told me they would look some more and get back with me. I kept my cell phone by my side knowing it would ring before the afternoon was over. Within an hour, we made an appointment to meet at the courthouse first thing Tuesday morning so they could be on their way.
I had difficulty reconciling this contrite young man with the playful groom of Saturday evening. Josh could not look me in the eye and then Cindy started in with “tell her, you have to tell her.”
Josh mumbled, “I found the license.”
I was wondering why they hadn’t called to let me know it wasn’t necessary to meet them at the courthouse if they'd found it when he pulled a grey ball from his pocket and handed it to me. He had obviously found what used to be
the license. I can imagine the look on my face, raised eyebrows and a questioning smile, because he blushed and blurted out the details. After I had given him the completed license he had jammed it in his pants pocket and then forgotten about it. A memory that might have come in handy when he decided to cavort in the ocean waves with his groomsmen after the formal picturing taking was over. A party indeed! Once again proving beyond any reasonable doubt, the combination of salt water and paper does not lend itself well to scanning and copying.And yes, we got them a new license and everything worked out just fine!Photo Attribute: Cheryl Clermont, Space Coast PhotographerThis particular wedding party is NOT the couple in the story.
<Names Changed to Protect The Guilty>
My county has several locations where marriage licenses are processed. I have learned over the years which one to go to depending upon my needs. This time I needed someone who could help me out with a straight face.
Mindy and Mitchell planned a lovely ceremony at the far end of a long dock out over the river with just close family in attendance. The day was simply gorgeous with moderate temperatures, beautiful blue sky and a nice breeze. The sun made the river absolutely sparkle. We should have paid more attention to that breeze and less to the sparkly water.
I understand Mindy had experienced some frustrations related to the wedding earlier in the day, but the ceremony itself went off without so much as a hiccup—until we signed the marriage license. I made the mistake of having the parents sign Mitchell and Mindy’s legal license and keepsake certificate right there under the pavilion at the end of the dock, failing to immediately take repossession of the license and tuck it in my briefcase for safe keeping. One of the fathers decided he wanted a picture of these documents and placed them on one of the benches at the edge of the dock. I had my back turned and didn’t see a thing until the screaming and pointing started.
A gust of wind picked up the license and blew it right into the river. Of course it left the meaningless keepsake certificate well enough alone. Fishermen who heard the commotion came running up and tried to nab the soggy license in their nets, but the current was having none of it. I wanted evidence and took a picture of the license floating away. Mindy could do nothing more than roll her eyes and mutter, “figures.” I guess she really had had a tough day.
I assured them everything would be fine and I’d meet them at the courthouse on Monday to obtain a duplicate. This was the first time the above mentioned clerk got me out of a jam and it would not be the last. I seek him out whenever I run into a wrinkle. You know someone is worth their weight in gold when they are kind enough to refrain from bursting out laughing when you show them a picture of a license floating down the river. Yes, I really did take the picture in to the courthouse to show the clerks exactly what happened.
It really was a simple matter of the clerk pulling the file up in the computer system, hitting the print button, having all of us sign the new license and then issuing the certified copy. The couple’s anniversary date wasn’t affected. Going by the paper trail alone, it’s like the incident never happened. So don't worry if something happens to your license before it can be filed with the clerk of courts. People are always willing to help and problems can always be solved.
I left the picture with the clerk and wonder to this day if he’s got it hidden behind his desk to remind him how stupid officiants can be sometimes. I know I would be tempted.