Published: Wednesday, Oct. 6th, 2021
If you’ve been reading the news lately, you might have seen this article about a wedding officiant in Indiana who never filed the marriage license for a couple who paid her to marry them.
Angel Bodenhamer, manager of Indiana Wedding Design, did a “lovely” job on Sarah Mueller’s wedding ceremony, Mueller says. But when Mueller tried to get a copy of her marriage license from the courthouse a month later, she was told the paperwork was never filed by Bodenhamer.
Mueller discovered she wasn’t actually married!
When Mueller reached out to her officiant for help, there was no response. Luckily, she and her husband were able to purchase a new marriage license from the courthouse, but she says the hassle of it is still “a sore spot.”
For some couples, this month-long delay between ceremony and legal marriage would be a disaster. Marriage is absolutely about love, but there are also plenty of practical reasons to get the paperwork right, right away.
For starters, a valid marriage license is necessary to access benefits like insurance and housing for spouses, and provides added security for families with children.
Each state has something called a ‘return period,’ which is the amount of time you or your wedding officiant have to get your marriage license turned in to the county clerk’s office following a ceremony.
In some cases, this is as few as 3 days following the ceremony, so it’s important that this is taken care of promptly, and correctly!
Below, you’ll find a checklist with the information you need to know to file a marriage license correctly -- whether you’re getting married or officiating a wedding -- including who files the license in your state, where to file it, and when.
Learn how long your marriage license is good for in your state. Your ceremony must take place within this time limit, or you’ll need to apply for and purchase a new license.
Learn how long you have to return the marriage license following the ceremony. In some states, this will be the same as the expiration date. In other states, you may only have 3 days, or up to a year.
Circle this date on your calendar, set an alert on your phone, and make sure your license is returned on time! If it’s not, you’ll have to start the process over and purchase a new license, even if you’ve already held a ceremony.
Learn who’s responsible for filing the marriage license in your county by speaking with your county clerk before the ceremony. Should it be returned by you, or by your wedding officiant?
This information is usually provided by the clerk when you’re issued your license, but it’s useful to double check before the ceremony because laws are different in each state.
Some states require a license to be returned and filed in the same county in which it was issued, but others do not.
Contact the city or county clerk where you first applied for your license and ask where you should return it, as well as if this should be done in person or by mail. Gather this info before the ceremony, so that you have a plan in place to file in time.
Make sure you know what to write before you put pen to paper! Licenses get denied all the time for simple mistakes like ink color, spelling errors, or writing outside the lines.
For example, it’s important to get the date and location of your ceremony correct, because each state has its own laws regarding how long a marriage license is valid after application or issuance, and in which counties it can be used. Other details, such as writing legibly within the lines, using the right color ink, and including the correct title and denomination for the wedding officiant are also important.
Learn who signs the marriage license in your state, and make sure they’re all present at your ceremony. Depending on your state, you may need to include the signatures of one or two adult witnesses in addition to you and your officiant’s.
If you’re having a virtual online wedding, there will be specific rules on how to verify your witnesses and transmit the license to each person for signing. (Info for Zoom and Skype marriage ceremonies is located on our Weddings By State pages.)
If you or your officiant don’t file the license, either because you lose it or choose not to, you won’t be legally married. This is true even if you’ve already held a wedding ceremony. If your marriage license expires or you miss the return deadline, you’ll need to apply for a new license to marry.
To find out if a marriage license has been filed, contact your county clerk directly or reach out to your state’s department of vital records and request a certified copy of your marriage certificate.
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