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Can you get married without a marriage license? What if you lost it? Or forgot it?

Published Friday, Jul. 16th, 2021

Things happen, and sometimes we miss a couple steps on the way to the wedding altar… Even kinda big ones, like the marriage license. Maybe someone lost it, maybe you didn’t know you needed one in the first place, or maybe you didn’t have an extra twenty or fifty bucks lying around to buy one. 


Whatever the reason, many couples and wedding officiants have wondered: 


Can you get married without a marriage license? 


In a word, nope. But it’s not always that simple, so don’t panic… Here are a few common scenarios, with suggestions on what to do next. 




We lost our marriage license. 


If you lose a marriage license before it’s been signed, you’ll need to replace it before the wedding day. Contact the clerk’s office where you first applied and request a duplicate license. You may need to sign and file an affidavit, and you’ll probably be required to pay an additional fee. 


If you lose a marriage license after it’s been signed, but before it’s returned to the county recorder, you, your officiant, and any witnesses will all need to sign the duplicate. Do this as soon as possible, because states limit the amount of time you’ll have to file.




We forgot to bring our marriage license to the ceremony. 


You have two options: 

1) Ask your officiant and guests to wait while you go get it.
2) Revise your wedding script into a commitment ceremony. 


If you head home for the license, be prepared to pay more to cover your officiant’s and vendors’ time. Keep in mind that some officiants book multiple weddings on one day, so they might not even be able to wait. This is yet another reason why having someone in your wedding party ordained, and ready to serve as a backup officiant, is an awesome idea.


If you go forward with a commitment ceremony, you’ll need to remove any references to marriage from the wedding script. It’s a misdemeanor in many states for an officiant to perform a wedding ceremony without a marriage license present, so this is important. Make a plan with your officiant to sign the license at another time during a 'sign and go' ceremony, to make things official.


Use this Simple Commitment Ceremony Script




We had a ceremony, but never applied for a license.


Hmm, here’s what you should know: You aren’t legally married if there was no marriage license. If an ordained minister or professional officiant performed your ceremony without a license, they may have committed a misdemeanor. 


We recommend you start from scratch, plan a new ceremony, apply for your license, and make sure it’s signed and recorded within your state’s deadlines for expiration and return. 




Photograph shows a large bouquet of pink wedding roses in the left corner or half of the image, resting on a table. In the background are blurry details of trees and green leaves. Beside them, there is the shape of a masculine figure, showing torso and hands, signing a marriage license




We forgot to return our marriage license. 


If you forgot to return or mail in your license, what you do next will depend on how much time has passed since your wedding day. Every state has its own regulations on when a marriage license expires, and how long after the ceremony it can be returned and recorded. 


If it’s past your state’s deadline to return the license, you’ll need to contact the county clerk. You may be required to apply for and complete a new license, file an affidavit, or pay an additional fee. 


If the deadline hasn’t passed, get yourself to the clerk’s office, stat! Some states require a license to be returned by the officiant, while others require the couple to return it, so follow the instructions you received from the clerk when you filed your application.



We’re in a common law marriage already, but now we want a ceremony.  


Very few states recognize common law marriages, and then under only a few very specific circumstances. If you’re in one of these states and meet their requirements for common law marriage (also called informal marriage), you might be wondering if you need a license to hold a formal ceremony. 


This depends on your state’s marriage laws, and because the rules change quickly in each state, we recommend you contact your county or city clerk directly to ask. In some cases, there may be a similar but separate form to file, such as the Registration of Informal Marriage form in Texas. 




We were married before but got divorced. Now we’re remarrying. 


Any time you enter a new marriage, you need a new marriage license. This goes for couples who remarry each other, too. 


Be aware that some states require a waiting period between the end of your last marriage and the start of a new one. And about half of all states have a waiting period between a divorce / dissolution and applying for a new marriage license… So plan ahead! 




Did we miss anything? 


If you find yourself in a situation that we didn’t cover here, the best thing to do is contact the county you first applied for a license in, or the county you want to get married in, and ask them what to do next. 


In some cases, the best and simplest solution will be to plan on having two wonderful celebrations -- one informal gathering without a license (but lots of love), and one with an authorized officiant and a marriage license to make things legal. 




You might also like: 


What do I do with the marriage license after the Wedding?


No marriage license, no marriage… but maybe a misdemeanor?


Pagan Wedding Altars : An Illustrated Look at a Year and a Day Altar


The Best Worst Wedding Jokes (You’ll Secretly Laugh At)




It's Your Wedding!


Ask a Friend or Relative to Perform Your Wedding Ceremony 






Friends and family members can perform wedding ceremonies if they’ve been ordained online with American Marriage Ministries. 



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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