A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What is required to be legally married?

March 20, 1981

Dear Cecil:

I am curious about what it is that makes someone legally married. Is it the purchase of a license? Can two people be married without a third party "marrying" them? Do ministers, etc., have some number somewhere that makes it legal when they sign the certificate? Is there a copy filed somewhere that tells the world you are married?

Cecil replies:

The license is just permission to get married, normally within three to nine days after issuance. Actually getting married means performing whaever ritual is prescribed by your sect, Indian tribe, or native group, or, should none of the preceding be relevant, exchanging vows before a judge or authorized public official. Usually some third party solemnizes the proceedings, but if your church happens not to require one, you and your prospective spouse can simply marry each other, fill out the marriage certificate, and mail it to the county clerk. Ministers and the like aren't licensed; should the officiant in fact be bogus, the marriage is still valid, as long as you believed his/her credentials to be genuine. Wherefore do not inquire too closely into such matters. The county clerk mails a copy of both license and certificate to the state department of health, which I suppose tells the world you're married, after a fashion.

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