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?
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.
Rev. Ann Fuller
The commentary on this blog is my own opinion developed over years of officiating a wide range of wedding sizes and styles. I am always happy to answer any questions you may have.