Skip to main content

Marriage Laws and Licenses


Marriage laws are the rules and regulations that affect people once they marry. Marriage is a legal contract and married couples must follow its terms and conditions. Marriage laws vary from state to state and cover marriage eligibility, property ownership, insurance coverage, death benefits, divorce, and other related issues.

Marriage licenses are documents issued by a state that allow a couple to be married in that state. Couples must obtain a marriage license for the marriage to be valid. Marriage license laws vary from state to state.

Marriage laws regarding marriage eligibility

All couples wishing to legally marry must apply for a marriage license. Marriage license laws vary by state and may set limits on a couple's age, kinship, and sex. Additionally, states have laws regarding who can perform a marriage, the waiting period between issuance of the marriage license and the ceremony, the duration of license, and whether a blood test is required. All states prohibit marriage to anyone already married with a living spouse.

Marriage laws regarding assets and debt

Most property (including income) acquired during a marriage is considered marital, or community, property. This means that the property belongs to both husband and wife, even if only one generates income. In turn, both husband and wife are liable for debts in which both parties are co-signatures as well as for types of family expenses, such as a child's medical bills.

Separate property is any property owned by the husband or wife prior to the marriage and can include an inheritance or gifts. Separate property remains in the control of its owner if it remains separate and in one name only.

States vary greatly in how joint property ownership is defined. In community property states, couples share community property equally. In some community property states, this includes any earnings resulting from the sale or interest and dividends earned on separate property. In other states, spouses may share property but have the right to sole possession, or each spouse may have shares in the property that may or may not be equal.

If a spouse dies intestate (without a will), all property will pass to the surviving spouse and children according to a formula fixed by the state.

On a federal level, marriage laws govern the distribution of social security survivor benefits, the statewide recognition of a couple's marriage, and spousal immunity in court (except in divorce).

Applying for a marriage license

Couples apply for a marriage license in the county in which their marriage will be performed. Neither the bride nor groom needs to be a resident of that county or state. For weddings outside the U.S., couples need to fulfill legal obligations with the country in which their ceremony will be performed.

In general, the bride and groom must apply for a license and sign the application. They may also be asked to provide identification and proof of divorce or widowhood, if applicable. A couple may apply in person or, in many states, by mail. They must also pay a fee set by the county.

Each state can set limits regarding a couple's age, kinship, and gender. States can also regulate who can perform marriages, the waiting period between issuance of the marriage license and the ceremony, the duration of license, and whether a blood test is required (to test for venereal disease). No state accepts applications from anyone already married with a living spouse.

Issuing a marriage license

After the wedding ceremony, both spouses and the officiant (the person who performs the marriage) sign the marriage license. Some states also require witness signatures. The officiant then files for a certified copy of the marriage license and delivers a marriage certificate to the county administrator. The couple receives the certified marriage license once it has been processed.

You can request additional copies of your marriage license from the records office of the county in which you were married.

Additional resources:

Cornell University Law School (state-by-state requirements)

Related Legal Guides:

Common Law Marriage

Same Sex Marriage

Was this guide helpful?

Avvo divorce email series

Sign up to receive a 10-part series of useful information and legal advice about the divorce process.

Recommended articles about Divorce

Can't find what you're looking for?

Post a free question on our public forum.

Ask a Question

- or -

Search for lawyers by reviews and ratings.

Find a Lawyer