Guide to Wedding Certificates in the U.S.

Updated on June 20, 2023
At a Glance: A marriage license is obtained before a wedding and gives permission to marry, while a marriage certificate is issued after the wedding and serves as legal proof of marriage. A marriage license has an expiration date and requires certain documents for application, while a marriage certificate records the date, time, and place of the wedding and is needed for name changes and legal purposes. The process involves visiting the county clerk, providing necessary information and payment, obtaining signatures, and having the officiant submit the completed license. The cost of a marriage certificate varies by state.

Tying the knot can be an exciting affair. You are going to be spending the rest of your life with your partner, and you are most likely drowning yourself in festivities to usher in your new life.

However, it is also important for your marriage to be legally recognized. You might have heard the words “marriage license” and “marriage certificate” being thrown around during wedding planning. But what exactly do they mean? Is there a difference between the two? Let’s find out!

The Difference Between a Marriage Certificate and Marriage License

For those getting married, a marriage certificate and a marriage license are both important documents. However, the two documents come in handy at different points in time and are used for different purposes.

What Is a Marriage License?

A marriage license is a document issued by the government that allows you to get married. In other words, this is a document you will need to obtain before your wedding. Think of it as an application where you seek permission from the government to get married. Once you have received this document, you can then get married and obtain your marriage certificate.

What Is a Marriage Certificate?

A marriage certificate is a legal document that is issued to you after your wedding. This document proves that you are legally married to your spouse, and it records the date, time, and place of your wedding.

A marriage certificate is extremely important because this is the document that allows you to change your name after getting married. This document can come in handy if you need to add your spouse to your work benefits, or change your insurance, bank accounts, and credit cards. You might even have to show a copy of your marriage certificate to the IRS if you are being audited.

What Is the Difference?

The main difference between a marriage certificate and a marriage license is when you need to apply for them. For instance, you will need to apply for a marriage license before your wedding, while you can apply for a marriage certificate only after your wedding has been completed.

The second difference between the two is that a marriage license merely allows you to get married to your partner, while a marriage certificate acts as legal proof of your marriage to your spouse.

Lastly, marriage licenses tend to have expiry dates. In other words, if you put off your wedding for too long after obtaining a government license, the license may no longer be valid. However, your marriage certificate is valid for the entire duration of your marriage to your spouse, and there is no date of expiration.

How to Get a Marriage Certificate

The legalities of marriage are just as boring and mundane as the festivities of a wedding are fun and entertaining. However, getting a marriage license or a marriage certificate is something you just cannot avoid. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to obtain your marriage certificate.

Step 1: Set a Date and Place for Your Wedding

Why is this important? Well, let’s begin with the date first. As we have already mentioned, marriage licenses tend to have an expiration date. Usually, this is anywhere between 30 and 90 days. This is why you need to make sure you are well within the deadline to avoid the hassle of applying for a license all over again.

However, just because we say you need to be within the deadline does not mean you should apply for a license just a day before your wedding. This wouldn’t work either because most states do not allow you to get married as soon as you have received your marriage license. You will need to let at least 72 hours pass before you can tie the knot.

Now, let’s move on to exploring where you plan to get married. This is important because the location where you get married will affect the county from which you can obtain your marriage license.

Step 2: Visit the County Clerk

Next, you will need to visit your county clerk to obtain your license. Here’s what you need to take with you when you go down to the county clerk’s office:

1. Proof of your identity

2. Information regarding your parents’ names, birth dates, dates of passing, and so on

3. A witness (if applicable) in the form of a friend (who has known you for six months at least) or a family member

4. Proof that you are legally able to remarry, in case you have been married before. This can be in the form of a divorce certificate or the death certificate of your ex-spouse

5. Cash payment for the fee, which ranges anywhere between $30 and $150 depending on which state you plan to obtain the license from

Once you have all of the above in place, you will be able to apply for a marriage license at the county clerk. If you wish to change your name, this is where you can do so without having to incur additional costs later down the line.

Step 3: Get the Required Signatures

The signatures you would need differ from state to state, but you will typically need signatures on your marriage certificate from the following people:

1. You and your partner: Of course, both you and your partner will not only have to be present to obtain the marriage license, but both of you will have to sign it as well.

2. Your witnesses: Typically, most states require the signatures of at least two witnesses on your marriage license.

3. Your officiant: Your marriage license also needs to be signed by the officiant who legally ordained your marriage. Whether this is a priest, a judge, or even your friend, you will need to get their title and signature for your marriage license.

Step 4: The Officiant Provides the Completed Marriage License

The last step in obtaining your marriage certificate is getting your marriage license mailed to the county through your officiant. Your officiant can also drop off your license to the county in person.

If you wish to obtain a copy of your marriage certificate, you will need to apply for one. It usually takes a few days (or sometimes weeks) for your marriage certificate to be mailed to you. However, you can also go and pick up your certificate in person. Make sure to apply for as many copies of your certificate as you may need.

How Much Does a Marriage Certificate Cost?

The cost of a marriage certificate varies from state to state. You might also have to pay extra if you want more than one copy of the certificate. However, the price of a marriage certificate typically costs anywhere between $5 and $26 for your first copy, and additional copies may be obtained by paying anywhere between $3 and $15 per copy.

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Nothing seals the deal like a legal document. And obtaining a marriage license and marriage certificate is actually not as hard as you might have thought. As long as you have everything in place, the process of obtaining a marriage certificate should be smooth and easy. And then you’ll have obtained legal proof of your love and commitment to your spouse!

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.