What Is the Purpose of a Marriage License?

By Erin Carr Adams

Updated June 13, 2017

Wedding chapel sign in Las Vegas, Nevada

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In the United States, every state requires a couple to obtain a marriage license, also called a marriage certificate, in order to legalize their marriage. A marriage license is proof of a couple’s new legal obligations to each other as husband and wife, as well as who receives Social Security, insurance, medical and survivor benefits. Marriage licenses also guard against underage, familial and bigamous unions.


Before the 16th Century, marriage was a private agreement between families, and usually sanctioned by the church. In Colonial America, marriage licenses were issued to prevent bigamy and to legitimize children. As America developed, the government began using marriage licenses as a way to control what races could marry. In her New York Times article “Taking Marriage Private,” Stephanie Coontz reports that “by the 1920s, 38 states prohibited whites from marrying blacks, 'mulattos,' Japanese, Chinese, Indians, 'Mongolians,' 'Malays' or Filipinos.” Some states would not issue a license if the bride or groom was considered an addict, a drunk, mentally deficient or previously married. However, by the mid- to late- 20th century, these laws were repealed. Today, licenses are primarily for legal and contractual—not prohibitive—purposes.


The bride and groom are responsible for obtaining the license in person from their county clerk’s office in the county you plan to marry. Commonly, you must pay a fee and meet certain requirements, which vary by state. Signing the marriage license has become part of the ceremonial aspect of the modern wedding. The license is often not signed until after the wedding ceremony has occurred, signifying the official beginning of the marriage, at which point the bride, groom and the officiant of the wedding sign the license. Some states also require witness signatures. The officiant then files the license for the couple.


Requirements for a marriage certificate are different in each state. In all states you must show proof of identity. In most states you must be at least 18 years old to marry. However, in Mississippi, girls as young as 15 can obtain a marriage license without parental permission, according to the Cornell University Law School. Some states require that you take a blood test and prove identity, and some mandate a waiting period between registering for a license and actually getting married.


While states can no longer discriminate racially in regard to marriage, same-sex couples are fighting for the right to obtain legal marriage rights. Many like the New York Times contributor Coontz believe that state-mandated rights also discriminate against both straight and gay unmarried couples, as they are denied the same benefits as married couples. This opinion is fiercely contested, especially from religious groups, some who think that marriage is a sacred institution and that widening who receives the legal rights of marriage diminishes its traditional cultural purpose.

Fun Fact

Getting a marriage license in Las Vegas is so easy in part because of the low fee and lack of waiting period or blood test. After gambling, the marriage industry is the second largest revenue generator in Las Vegas. More than 125,000 couples were married in the city in 2002.