What Are the Legal Requirements for Marriage in the United States?

Laura Martinelli

The primary legal requirements for marriage in the United States are a valid marriage license, which must usually be obtained several days in advance of the ceremony, and an officiant who is recognized by the state or jurisdiction where the wedding is taking place. The individual states may also have their own requirements. Some of the most common pertain to age, and in most cases both members of the couple must be over 18. Blood testing used to be required in many states, but this isn’t as common anymore. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriages were a Constitutional right, the gender of the parties is not a barrier. Marriage in the United States can only be between two people, however, and neither party can be married to anyone else at the time of the ceremony.

Laws vary by state, but all require a license to be obtained before a wedding ceremony, in order for the marriage to be legally recognized.
Laws vary by state, but all require a license to be obtained before a wedding ceremony, in order for the marriage to be legally recognized.

Understanding the Role of the Different States

Each of the 50 United States has its own distinct laws, and with this independent requirements for a valid marriage. A marriage performed in one state will be recognized by all of the others, and in most respects the requirements are the same; in others, though, there can be variations. Many of these are minor. One state might require a license to be obtained at least a week before the ceremony, for instance, while another might allow just a day’s margin. Fees tend to vary a lot as well, and acceptable venues and officiants do, too. Couples are usually advised to do a bit of research into the specifics of their location in order to make sure that the process is as smooth as possible.

Whoever officiates a wedding ceremony must sign the marriage license.
Whoever officiates a wedding ceremony must sign the marriage license.

Marriage Licenses

One of the most important legal requirements for marriage is a marriage license, basically a piece of paper issued by a court or other authority that entitles two people to be legally married. It isn’t itself a pronouncement of marriage, but rather is a certification that the union is both authorized and legal. It’s still up to the couple to coordinate a ceremony; the license just makes that ceremony legitimate and recognizable in the eyes of the government.

To get married in Nebraska, both parties need to be at least nineteen years old.
To get married in Nebraska, both parties need to be at least nineteen years old.

The United States requires marriage licenses primarily in the interest of social welfare, for instance, to prevent disease and illegal marriages, like those between nuclear family members. Accurate state records are another benefit. When applying for a marriage license, both parties must generally be present and provide proper photo identification as well as evidence that neither party is currently married. Of course, they must also give their consent to the marriage.

All states require that a marriage license be obtained before the wedding itself, usually between one and six days before the ceremony. The license must be signed by the couple and an officiator, although some states require the signature of one or more witnesses as well. In order to qualify for the license, the couple must meet all of the requirements set by the state issuing the license. These can vary somewhat from place to place.

Age Restrictions

Age is often one of the biggest variables, though most states require both parties to be at least 18 years old. Nebraska requires both parties to be at least 19 years old. Younger parties can sometimes still obtain a marriage licenses, but they typically need parental consent. Most states place the age requirement for parental consent at age 16; however, several states will grant marriage licenses to those younger than 16 given both parental and judicial consent.

Officiant’s Authority

The legal requirements for marriage usually also include stipulations on who can actually conduct the ceremony, which is to say, who has the power to actually join two people into a recognized union. Religious leaders are popular choices, but in most places they need to be accredited or formally authorized by the state beforehand. Certain government officials, judges, and ship captains are usually also usually eligible, but again in most cases they must hold specific marriage-granting powers before the ceremony is conducted in order for the union to be recognized as valid later on. In some locations, anyone can apply to be a wedding officiant regardless of background and training so long as he or she is willing to pay a fee.

It is common for states to require the presence of at least one witness. In addition, the officiator of the ceremony is usually obligated to send a copy of the marriage license to the state agency for the formal marriage records. Failure to do so may make the marriage harder to prove. If the parties are married outside of the state or overseas, the home state will usually recognize the marriage so long as it is valid in the jurisdiction in which it took place.

Blood Testing

Blood testing is yet another of the legal requirements for marriage, at least in some places. The law requiring blood tests was created in large part to protect against sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis. Mississippi, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. all require a blood test before obtaining a marriage license. However, most will accept other documentation, such as a doctor’s report or test results from a private clinic, in lieu of a state-conducted test. Also, positive results aren’t usually a bar to marriage — in most cases, the states simply want both parties to have each others’ health information so that they can proceed with their marriage in an informed way.

Most states require both parties to be at least 18 in order to get married.
Most states require both parties to be at least 18 in order to get married.

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Discussion Comments


I was married in Minnesota in 2001. I have a marriage certificate. In 2004, we moved to Wisconsin. Wisconsin has a 6 month waiting period before remarrying. wasn't married in Wisconsin; but was told according to Wisconsin, I am not legally married b/c I was married before 6 mos. after my divorce. I was divorced in Colorado and remarried in Minnesota. Why would my marriage certificate not be valid in Wisconsin?


@Valleyfiah- Do not worry. Hawaii is probably the easiest state to get married. The license is $50 or $60 and you can get married as soon as you get your license...no waiting period! The marriage license also does not require a blood test or any time consuming activity.

We are getting married on Maui in ten months and the wedding license process was included in our wedding package. The wedding planner will schedule the appointment for us so we can just walk in and get our wedding license at our convenience. Hawaii is like destination wedding central so the process to get a marriage license is incredibly streamlined.


I am about to freak out. I have been getting ready for a destination wedding in Hawaii, but I have not even considered the wedding license yet. How long will I have to wait between applying for the license and actually getting married? I am supposed to get married my second day there. In addition, would I be able to get my marriage license in my home state and take it with me to Hawaii?

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