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Are Marriage Licenses Public Records? (And Where Can You Marry in Secret?)

Published Tuesday, Mar. 28th, 2023

Photo: Pexels / Daniel Rocha

Learn more about how a marriage license does (or doesn't) become public record



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AMM Audio Articles · Are Marriage Licenses Public Records? (And Where Can You Marry in Secret?)




The act of getting married is usually a pretty public affair. Couples send out engagement announcements and wedding invitations, host parties and brunches, and take their vows in front of family members and close friends – or at the very least, a friendly court clerk. 


But some couples prefer privacy, even on the wedding day. That might mean leaving town for a ‘just us’ elopement ceremony, or planning a secret wedding with an officiant they can trust. 


Related: 3 Things to Know Before Having a ‘Just Us’ Wedding Ceremony


And for couples who really want to keep things quiet, there’s the question of the marriage license itself… 



Does a marriage license become public record? 


In most cases, yes. 


Marriage licenses are almost always made public. In most cases, after a marriage is solemnized (conducted) by an authorized officiant, your marriage license is filed with the local clerk or registrar’s office and becomes part of that county or city’s public records. Marriage records can be viewed by anyone, just like other vital records can (such as birth and death records). 




You’ll notice we said almost always… There are a couple instances in which marriage records do not become public, but these options are only available in two states: California and Michigan. 


We cover each of these special circumstances below.


Close up on two young brides sitting on a wall outdoors on the wedding day

Photo: Pexels / PNW Production


California’s Confidential Marriage License


In California, couples can apply for either a standard marriage license or a ‘confidential marriage license.’ A confidential marriage license is issued in the same way that a standard license is, and must be completed by the couple and their officiant. However, this special license doesn’t require witnesses signatures and it doesn’t become public record after it’s filed with the clerk’s office – allowing couples to marry ‘confidentially,’ or secretly, if they wish to (§ 511). 


Confidential marriages are common in California, comprising about 20% of the state's total marriages each year.


Learn more: 






Michigan’s ‘Marriage License Without Publicity’


In Michigan, couples can marry privately with the special approval of a probate judge (§551.201). Couples must provide the judge with a ‘good reason’ to keep their marriage secret, and if their request is approved, the judge may issue their marriage license ‘without publicity’ and perform their marriage. After a ceremony is performed, the marriage records are sealed and can only be accessed by the married parties.


These so-called ‘secret marriages’ are rare in Michigan, and it’s estimated that only a dozen or so performed each year. 


Learn more: 





Even ‘secret’ weddings must be performed by an officiant


Couples who want to marry in secret will need to have their marriage solemnized (conducted) by a qualified officiant. 



Marriage officiants can be a court clerk, a local priest or rabbi, or a close friend or family member who’s been ordained online.



Choose an officiant you trust to keep your secret, and follow the suggestions in this helpful article: 


Planning a Secret Wedding

(Is Easier Than You Think)


Planning a secret wedding ceremony, and don’t want your friends or family to find out? We’ll show you a simple, easy way to elope, and everything else you need to know to keep your marriage private. 


Read the full article here. 



A young couple face away from the camera while holding hands on a rural dirt road, looking towards a forest of evergreen trees



Just remember, unless you take special steps in California or Michigan to keep it private, your marriage record will always be public, even if your wedding isn’t. 



Asked to officiate a secret wedding? 


Wedding Officiants: There are a few important things to keep in mind when you’re asked to officiate a secret wedding for a friend, relative, or member of your community. 


First, always verify the age and identity of each party to the marriage by asking to see a Photo ID Card or Driver’s License, and compare this information to their marriage license. This is a good practice for any wedding officiant and any ceremony, but it’s especially important when performing a secret ceremony without witnesses. 


Next, choose a private location. This might be the couple’s home, a quiet park, or another out-of-the-way venue.


And remember – don’t post photos or details about the ceremony on social media! This might sound obvious, but it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement when conducting a wedding. Always ask for a couple’s permission before sharing any information about their marriage with others. 




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A young couple sign the marriage license with the help of the wedding officiant following the ceremony, they are outdoors on a sunny day surrounded by trees and a green field with grass is behind them. The bride is young with tattoos on her chest and arm and holds a bouquet with red roses, the groom wears a dark suit with red bowtie and matching rose boutineer, and the officiant has bright red orange hair.

Learn what to do if you lose your marriage license, forget to bring it to the wedding ceremony, forget to return it, or didn't apply for one. Read the full article here. 




Jessica Levey
Jessica Levey

Lead Staff Writer & Illustrator

Jessica loves exploring the history and magic of ritual, the connections between people and places, and sharing true stories about love and commitment. She's an advocate for marriage equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and individuality, and is an ordained Minister with AMM. When she’s not writing or illustrating for AMM, she enjoys city hikes, fantasy novels, comics, and traveling.

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