For most couples, applying for the marriage license is the least romantic part of getting married. They go, they sit, they fill out the form, they show their IDs, they pay the fee and then they leave. It's about as romantic as a visit to the DMV. It is a necessary part of the process, though. Without a marriage license, your wedding is—at best—a really fancy and romantic party. The license is what seals the deal with the state and the government. It's important, even though it feels like a chore.
What is a marriage license?
It is easy to wave off the marriage license as one of those tedious governmental documents. It certainly can feel like bureaucratic nonsense. It is easy to look at it and see it as something that is necessary for things like the census and record keeping. A lot of people reading this article might even think it is something that was thought up as a way for the government to keep track of everybody. The truth is, though, that marriage licenses have been around for centuries.
The Banns of Marriage
Marriage licenses can be traced all the way back to the middle ages. They started being used by the Catholic Church to get around a situation called The Banns of Marriage. For the most part the Banns of Marriage are associated with the Catholic Church though it has ties to the Church of England as well.
You are probably familiar with that part of the marriage ceremony during which the officiant asks if there are any objections to the union that is about to happen. This is a practice that also dates back to the middle ages and it was called the Banns of Marriage—but it was a lot more complicated than the short uncomfortable moment people are familiar with today.
Centuries ago, when a couple wanted to get married they would pay a visit to the head of their parish and announce their desire. The head of the parish, then, would publish a notice in the church bulletin announcing the hopeful couple's intentions. Then, during holy day ceremonies (in today's culture it is called "church") the head of the parish would stand up and announce that the two hopeful people wanted to get married. He would ask if there was anybody in the parish that had any reasons to prevent the union from taking place. Anybody who had any objection to the union was allowed to speak up. Most of the time this had to be repeated for at least three weeks (or three holy day services). If nobody voiced any objections during that time, the head of the parish would allow the couple to be married.
That's pretty messed up. Imagine having to wait for almost a month before knowing whether or not you would be allowed to married!
For the most part, the objections were pretty straightforward: if one of the people was already married and the marriage wasn't legally over yet, if the couple were related in some way—if there were other jurisdictional questions involved in the match, etc. Still—there are all sorts of ways in which the Banns of Marriage could get messy. If the two people belonged to different parishes or were of different faiths, there were questions about which parish's law needed to be followed.
The Banns of Marriage, believe it or not, were canonical law until 1983 when the Catholic Church finally abolished the practice.
Marriage licenses were introduced in the fourteenth century as a way to circumvent the Banns of Marriage and allow for people to get legally married within the church without having to wait for such a long time.
Interesting note: There have always been fees associated with marriage licenses. They were not just started in modern times to cover the cost of materials, filing and record keeping.
One of the things that have always been slightly stressful about applying for a marriage license has been the idea of taking a blood test. A lot of people assume that blood tests are required to make sure that the couple isn't related to each other. The truth is that the blood test requirement was introduced as a way to make sure that neither person had syphilis—or another disease that could easily be passed along to a child. If one of the people was found to be a carrier, the marriage license wouldn't be approved.
This law was enacted long before cures for syphilis and related diseases were commonplace. Because so many of those diseases are curable now, most states have done away with the blood test requirement.
Other Fun Information
For many decades marriage licenses were used as a way to keep people from different races from marrying. Specifically it was used in many states to prevent Caucasian people from marrying people from African American, Asian, Hispanic, Mongolian, Filipino, Native American and Mulatto backgrounds. Obviously and thankfully, this is no longer the case.
The Libertarian party is trying to keep the state from requiring marriage licenses to recognize the legal union of two adults. They want the ceremony and the marriage itself to be considered civil matters.
There are some churches that believe that the only authority to join two people in marriage is the church and that the state and federal government shouldn't require licenses or records of the unions at all.
Marrying people from two different states can be tricky but typically the state in which the ceremony takes place is the state in which the marriage license must be filed. Once a marriage is legally recognized by any of the individual states, it is recognized on a federal level and by all of the other states as well.
The laws surrounding marriage licenses vary from state to state and often from county to county or even city to city. The only way to know for sure what the laws and fees are for a marriage license in your local area is to contact your local records office. Or, better yet, just use our state-by-state guide for the marriage requirements in your area.
Marriage licenses might not seem like the most romantic part of a marriage union, but they are the most important aspect of the ceremony, particularly from a legal standpoint. What you might see as a tedious hour spent at your local courthouse, is the most important step to making sure that you and your partner are legally covered for the rest of your lives. What's not romantic about that?