I’ve had a lot of brides lately who are very confused about marriage licenses, from not realizing that you have to have one prior to the ceremony, to panicking because I have not handed it back to them after the wedding.
As I mainly officiate in New Hampshire and a couple of the adjoining states, let me first say that my opinion refers to my practices within those states. Other states may vary, but it is my experience that they don’t vary much. I have a powerpoint presentation that I send to my brides when they book me, but I really don’t think that many of them read it. But the information is at least on hand should they need to refer to it.
A brief summary. The license is obtained from the state representative who issues them, generally the Town Clerk. In NH you can obtain a license in any town and use it within the entire state. In other states you must marry within the area covered by the Town Clerk who issued it, for example in that particular town. What is a license? Simply a legal document that tells your officiant that it is legally valid for them to perform the marriage. You will have supplied all proofs to the Clerk who issued it. Usually these licenses expire, for instance NH licenses are good for 90 days from date of issue. That means if you don’t marry within that time frame, you need to get another license.
You give the license to the officiant and that’s the last you see of it. This is the part that confuses the most people. They see images in movies of couples signing and being given a paper to take away with them. Yes, this would happen if the person marrying you was the legal issuing body of marriage documents. Say you were getting married in a court house for example. In most cases this is two entirely separate people. I am not able to issue legal documents for the state. I AM able to file legal documents pertaining to marriage. So I would take the license, complete the parts that are my official duty and then I file it with the same Clerk who issued it.
Approximately two weeks later you go to that same Clerk and they will issue you a legal document the Marriage Certificate, which is the paper that proves you are married. This is the one for you. There seems to be a confusion about the fact that there are TWO documents in the process, and most people think it’s just one. Many emails and phone calls are placed to me asking why I have not either handed back their license or several weeks later asking why I have failed to mail it to them. One or two of these calls have been irate. It’s a pity. I do thoroughly explain the process in a series of documents that I provide, and I usually mention the process to the groom verbally in the hopes of avoiding the stress entailed for the couple when they realize that they have no legal document for such entities as health insurers etc.
I highly recommend treating the paperwork for your marriage as part of the planning process. If you are changing your name you should have all the documents prepared and ready to go prior to the wedding, and just waiting for the legal Marriage Certificate to be attached. I suggest an after honeymoon brunch for the two of you where you sign the documents and attach the proof of marriage and get them mailed. Why make it a panicked chore in a mad rush to get on your spouses health insurance?
Of all the parts of the wedding, surely the legal part should take as much care and thought as the fun part of flowers and cake and sharing the time with your family and friends. I am trying very hard to instill this in my couples without becoming an overbearing bore on the subject. Hmm, perhaps too late for that! It is a fact that your next of kin is now going to be your spouse, do not overlook the ramifications of this. Wills, insurances, deeds etc now flow differently within your family group. This day is not only for love, spirituality, bonding and celebration, it is also a legally binding contract. Beneath my ‘smiling happy sharing of your special day hat’ is my ‘legal representative of the state hat’. Here is a .pdf file with more details of the paperwork needed. It might be helpful to someone.