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Everything You Need to Know About California’s Confidential Marriage Licenses

Published Tuesday, Nov. 2nd, 2021

Este articulo en español

A whimsical image showing a groom and bride posing for a wedding day photo in the woods. Both newlyweds hold a large balloon that covers their face and leaves their identity unknown. A creative interpretation of the concept California Confidential Marriage License

We’re all familiar with the marriage license -- the legal document that’s signed and submitted when a couple agrees to marry. But what about a confidential marriage license? 


Because confidential licenses are only available in California and serve a special purpose, couples and wedding officiants might be wondering: 



  • How are confidential marriage licenses different from public licenses? 


  • What are the pros and cons of a confidential marriage license? 


  • How do couples apply for a confidential marriage license? 


  • What does a wedding officiant need to know to complete or file one?



Read on for answers to all of these questions, and more! 





Common Considerations When Using a California Confidential Marriage License


1. Most marriage licenses are public record


Public vs confidential: The key difference between a public marriage license and a confidential license is that confidential licenses don’t become part of the public record and can only be accessed by the couple or by court order. 


Every state requires a couple to file a marriage license to prove that they are legally married. Some states call this form something else, such as Alabama’s notarized ‘marriage certificate forms,’ but the principle is the same across the US: If a couple wants to be legally married, they must record their union with the local government after the marriage is solemnized. 


These records are usually public, meaning that anyone can access them by contacting a Clerk or Vital Records office in the county or state where they are filed. 


Confidential marriage licenses are also filed with the County Clerk, but they don’t become public record. 




2. Pros and cons of a confidential marriage license


Pros - Some couples want their details kept private


For most people, having a public record of their marriage isn’t a big deal. But for others, such as celebrities, political figures, and others in the public eye (or those who want to stay out of it), it’s important to keep their personal details and marriages private. This is why many couples choose a confidential license.


When California first introduced the option for confidential marriage records back in 1878, it was a convenient way for couples who had been secretly ‘living in sin’ to legally marry without blowing their cover… which a public wedding certainly would do. This discrete option helped encourage marriage and simplified things when caring for children or distributing inheritances.


These days, it’s a popular option for a variety of reasons, including a lower cost than regular license and no need for witnesses, and an estimated one-fifth of marriages in California are confidential. 


Cons - There may be some disadvantages to a private marriage record


Until recently, confidential licenses could only be used in the county in which they were issued. This was a major disadvantage for many couples, but the requirements were updated in 2015 and all licenses can now be used in any county in the state.


A potential disadvantage is that couples must be living together when they apply. This information is provided by the couple and won’t be checked by the county, but could pose a problem for couples who aren’t living together and answer honestly on their application.  


Minors are not able to apply for this type of license, even with permission from a guardian. 




Couple eloping on a beach in California, using a confidential marriage license. The photo shows a man and a women in wedding clothing including a suit and a white dress, smiling at each other on the beach with the ocean in the background.

Want to elope in California?

Confidential marriage licenses don't require witness signatures,

making them a great choice for elopements. 



3. Couples apply for a confidential license through the County Clerk 


Applying for a confidential license is similar to applying for a public one, but there are a few unique requirements to be aware of. Couples in California should contact their local county clerk to learn more and begin the application process. 


Requirements to apply for a confidential marriage license in California: 


  • Both parties must be over 18. There are no exceptions for minors
  • The couple must be living together and must sign an affidavit attesting to those facts. (§ 500)
  • No witnesses are required, and no witnesses will sign the license.
  • The couple may be married in any county in the state.
  • The license must be registered with the County Clerk’s Office in the county where it was purchased.
  • The license is valid 90 days. (This is the expiration period, after which an unused or unfiled license expires and a new license must be purchased.)
  • A confidential license may also be issued by an Authorized Notary Public 




4. What wedding officiants need to know to sign and file a confidential marriage license


Wedding officiants will be relieved to know that signing and filing a confidential license is very straightforward. For this information, we look to § 506 of the California Family Code, which states that: 


(a) The confidential marriage license shall be presented to the person solemnizing the marriage. 


(b) Upon performance of the ceremony, the solemnization section on the confidential marriage license shall be completed by the person solemnizing the marriage. 


(c) The confidential marriage license shall be returned by the person solemnizing the marriage to the office of the county clerk in the county in which the license was issued within 10 days after the ceremony.


This means that a wedding officiant will complete the marriage license in the same way that they would a public license. After the ceremony, the officiant will return the license within 10 days to the county where it was issued. This is the same ‘return period’ given for a regular license. 


If a confidential marriage license is lost, damaged, or destroyed after the wedding ceremony, but before it’s returned to the county clerk, the wedding officiant must file an affidavit with the county clerk within one year of the ceremony to obtain a duplicate license. ( § 510




To become a marriage officiant in California and perform weddings for your friends and family:


Get ordained online with AMM, 
And learn how to marry people in California! 





Asked to officiate?  


You only get one shot to deliver a perfect wedding ceremony.



There’s no ‘take-two’ when it comes time for a couple to say ‘I do’--  Wedding officiants only get one shot to perform a perfect wedding ceremony. 








Give yourself the tools and training you deserve to succeed as a wedding officiant, so that you can stand beside the lucky couple with complete confidence on their big day. 






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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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