How to Get Married (Legally)

by Team eLocal
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Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.

Getting married is a huge step in a relationship, and it comes with many personal, legal and financial benefits.

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Understanding how to get married legally ensures you’re able to enjoy these benefits.

What Does It Mean to Be Legally Married?

While everyone has a different perspective on what it means to be married, it’s important to know what it means in the eyes of the government. Marriage is a legal contract that binds two people together under common finances and legal obligations. When you get married, there are legal and financial benefits you receive.

Tax Benefits

Married couples can file their taxes jointly, which may save you some money on your tax bill each year. The nearly unlimited marital tax deduction also allows you to transfer assets to your spouse without tax penalties.

Inheritance

If you don’t have a living will and testament, your spouse will be the primary heir if you pass away prematurely. If your spouse passes away, you'll be able to inherit their Social Security benefits, IRA and pension payments. You’re also entitled to receive any Medicare, veteran's or disability benefits your spouse was enrolled in after their passing.

Medical Power of Attorney

If your spouse is unable to make medical decisions, you might be selected to choose options on their behalf. You'll also be able to file lawsuits on your spouse’s behalf for personal injuries or wrongful death.

What Are the Legal Requirements for Marriage?

Some states have more stringent requirements for getting married, so it’s important to check to see what regulations apply to marriages in the state where you're marrying. Varying rules may dictate when you have to apply for a license in relation to your wedding, how long you have to get married after receiving the license and whether you need to complete additional steps.

For example, some states may require that you prove some or all of the following before granting you a marriage license:

  • You understand that marriage is regarded as a legal contract and are of fit mind to enter into the contract.
  • You don’t have any contagious diseases that could harm your partner.
  • You’ve prepared witnesses to observe your marriage.
  • You’ve selected someone to perform the service, such as a priest, minister or court official.
  • You’re not currently married to anyone else.
  • Both you and your partner are of legal age to get married in your state.

Some states have different requirements for residents and nonresidents, so you may also need to provide evidence of residency and ensure you meet the right set of requirements.

All states must allow same-sex marriage due to a 2015 Supreme Court ruling. However, couples should be aware that some states and counties may still be reluctant to grant same-sex marriage licenses. Some states allow domestic partnerships and civil unions, which are similar to marriage but don't always have the same benefits.

A few states recognize common-law marriage, which allows couples to enjoy the benefits of marriage without a ceremony or license. Generally, a couple must live together as spouses for many years to establish a common-law marriage. These marriages can be difficult to prove and often aren't the best way to establish a marriage.

What Are the Legal Steps You Need to Take to Get Married?

If you’re working with a minister, court official or another professional who will oversee your ceremony, this person usually offers all the information needed to proceed in your state. The first step is to decide who will officiate your wedding and then apply for your marriage license. After receiving your license, you can proceed to get married, and you'll receive a marriage certificate once the ceremony is completed.

After receiving your marriage certificate, you need to take a couple more steps before you can enjoy the legal and tax benefits of being married.

Marriage License

Your timing for applying for a marriage license is important. Some states require you to wait a certain period before you can get married after you obtain the license. Other states have expiration times on licenses, so your marriage may not be recognized if your license expires before the ceremony.

For example, if your state requires you to obtain a license at least six days before you get married and it’s valid for 60 days, you have a 53-day window to get married. You should plan in advance, so you can apply for your marriage license at the appropriate time.

If you need to complete any medical tests to obtain a license, these tests are part of the process you need to follow during your application. The final step is to pay the fee for your license, which varies by state. The most expensive marriage license fees are about $200, but you may pay less.

Ceremony

There are two common types of ceremonies for getting married:

  • A court marriage is performed before a judge or court official who has the authority to recognize marriages and usually doesn’t involve a reception or large gathering.
  • A traditional wedding is performed with an officiant who has obtained the legal authority to perform marriages in your state and may occur in the presence of family and friends.

Some people choose to have a court marriage, and then they have the wedding at a later date.

A few states don't require officiants, and couples can self-solemnize their marriage license. However, even these states may still require witnesses or have other requirements, so make sure you understand what's required.

Name Change

Some newlyweds change their last names after they get married to that of their new spouse. This begins a process of steps to become recognized as your spouse’s legal partner. Upon receiving your marriage certificate, you need to apply for a name change (if you’re choosing to change your name, that is), obtain new identification, update your Social Security card and then report your new name to financial institutions, such as your banks, credit card companies, landlord and insurance company.

Marriage Certificate

When you get married, the person performing the wedding and your witnesses will need to sign the license. You’re then able to file the paperwork to receive your marriage certificate. You have as much time as you need to complete this process, but it’s a good idea to start soon.

A marriage certificate is proof that you’re now married. If you file taxes jointly with your spouse, the IRS may ask for you to produce the marriage certificate to prove you’ve been married. It also makes it easier to complete your name change because the process for changing your name is much different if you’re choosing to do so for a different reason. Having your marriage certificate on hand may also make it easier for you to get new identification and let your employer know that your name has changed.

What Happens After the Ceremony?

After your marriage or wedding ceremony, you can begin the process of making changes to important documents, such as your passport, driver’s license, Social Security card and tax documents. When you submit your signed marriage license, make sure to ask for multiple duplicates, so you can store them in a safe location in case you need them.

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