Most of us think that we already know everything there is to know about getting married and what's involved. We know that we need to apply for a marriage license. How many of you already know, though, what comes next? How do you know for sure that your marriage is valid and legally recognized? More importantly, how do you prove it to others who might have questions?
This is where your marriage certificate comes in and it is important. Really really important.
NOTE: For the purposes of this page, we are going to be talking primarily about marriages that have taken place within the United States.
What Is a Marriage Certificate?
A marriage certificate is the legal document that you are going to use when you need to prove that your marriage has been legally recognized by your state and, by extension, the federal government.
There are two types of marriage certificates: certified and not certified (informational).
Didn't I Already Get One of Those Before My Wedding?
Before you got married you had to fill out a marriage license. This is not, technically speaking, the same thing. It is true, though, that in some states it is the exact same document, but it cannot be used as proof of the marriage's validity until your officiant signs it and files it with your local records office (or whichever office is in charge of vital records where you live).
More simply: the marriage license is what you have to file so that you can get married. The marriage certificate is what proves the marriage actually (and legally) happened.
What About the Fancy Looking Certificate I Signed At My Wedding? Won't that Work?
The fancy looking certificate with the pretty fonts and the big spaces for you and your new spouse to sign is really only for the two of you. It won't hold up in court and you won't be able use it to do things like changing your name. For official purposes, you will need the legal (and, typically, more boring looking) marriage certificate.
Why Do I Need This?
There are all lots of reasons to have a certified copy of your marriage certificate on hand. For one thing, you will need the certified copy available when you start to take care of legal things like changing your name.
Of course, in some circumstances (like if you just need to do research, etc); Informational copies of your marriage certificate ought to work just fine.
What's the Difference Between an Informational and Certified Copy?
Typically the only difference between a certified copy and an informational copy of a marriage certificate is the seal that does or does not get applied to the paper on which the certificate is printed.
An informational copy is usually just a plain printed copy of the certificate. It does not contain a seal.
A certified copy will sometimes (depending on the issuing state) be printed on specific security paper. It will always have a raised seal applied to its pages. The seal might not be easy to see but you can definitely feel the bumps if you run your fingers over the paper.
Who Can Get a Certified Copy?
Not everyone is able to get a certified copy of a marriage certificate.
Almost the only people who are allowed to request certified copies of marriage certificates are the two people named on the certificate, spouses of the people married by the certificate (in the event that both parties on the document are no longer married), and immediate family members (parents, grandparents, children, siblings) of the people named on the certificate.
If you aren't one of these people, there are still options available to you. You can have one of the people named above give their written consent to have your request filled. You can also try to prove that you need the certified copy to prove that you need to protect personal or property rights.
If you don't meet any of these criteria, you can still request an informational copy of the certificate.
This varies from city to city and from state to state. Make sure you call ahead to get the right information for where you live.
Which Kind of Marriage Certificate Should I Get?
If you are able, it is definitely in your best interest to obtain a certified copy of the marriage certificate. For one thing, you will need your copy to be certified if you have to submit it for anything legally or governmentally-related (like legally changing your name, getting a new social security card, etc).
If you are just doing research, or aren't able to get a certified copy, an informational copy should be sufficient. In fact, informational copies can be sufficient for most purposes, so long as they aren't related to anything governmental.
How Do I Order My Marriage Certificate?
There are a few different ways that you can order a marriage certificate.
The first thing you need to do is make sure that you have all of the proper documentation ready to go. Each state will have different requirements. Some states will require you to fill out a request form to order the certificate. You will also need to present an official form of ID like a current Driver's License, state-issued ID card or Passport. Call ahead to make sure you know exactly what you need.
You should also make sure that you know exactly how much it is going to cost to have your certificate printed and certified. The cost isn't usually large, but it is better to know ahead of time so that you are not surprised. It is also in your best interest to make sure you have the proper type of payment ready. Some states accept debit cards and checks. Others do not. Make sure you know what your state needs from you!
Ordering In Person
The easiest way to get your marriage certificate is to visit your local records office or courthouse and make the request in person. The process should only takes a few minutes to have the certificate printed out and, if needed, certified.
Obviously that few minutes does not include time you might spend waiting in line. Even if you have to wait in line for a while, though, you'll have an easier time when you order your certificate this way.
Over the Phone
Most jurisdictions do not allow you to request a certified marriage certificate over the phone. There are a lot of reasons for this. The biggest reason is that you are going to need to provide certain documents and forms of identification to prove that you have a right to the information that you are trying to get. This is not something that can be done over the phone.
Some cities and states, however, might allow you to phone in a request for an informational copy of a marriage certificate.
If your local town or state isn't going to allow you to request your marriage certificate over the phone, they might let you submit the request via fax.
There is usually an extra fee for obtaining a copy of your marriage certificate via faxed request. There are further fees if you want your request to be expedited. The fees can be pretty spendy. Make sure that you know what they are before you agree to them. It might be worth the monetary savings to just go in to the office and wait in line.
Over the Internet
You can also request certified copies of your marriage certificate online. Most states have paired up with independent organizations like Vital Chek, Background USA, and Vital Rec to offer this service.
Before you just jump over to, say, Vital Chek—make sure that this is the organization that is endorsed by your state. A quick search of your state's Department of Health or Department of Records website will tell you which organization the state prefers you use. Some states will even offer the service through their own websites.
Requesting certified copies of your marriage certificate online can be expensive. Many of the organizations that offer this service require you to pay with a major credit card. Some can charge upwards of forty dollars just to have the certificate printed. If you don't want to wait for a few weeks to receive your certified marriage certificate in the mail, you will have to pay an extra charge to expedite the process.
The fees vary from state to state. They vary from document to document. They vary from regular processing to expedited processing. Make sure that you do your research before placing your order.
If you live locally, it's a lot more time and cost effective to simply pay a visit to your local records office to get your certificate printed and certified.
If, however, you no longer live within the state in which you were married, these Internet services offer you a fantastic and reliable way to obtain the forms and certificates you need.
IMPORTANT: You can do more with these services than just ordering certified copies of your marriage certificate. You can also order certified copies of birth certificates, death certificates, divorce settlements, and other vital records. The cost for these things varies, so it might be a good idea to shop around for the best pricing if you have that option available to you.
What If I Need To Travel Overseas?
Believe it or not, there are some situations in which you are going to need to prove that your marriage is legal when you are traveling (or living) abroad. If you encounter (or think you will encounter) one of these situations, you might need to have your marriage certificate authenticated with an apostille.
An apostille is an authentication that a document is valid, legal and binding. It is recognized by every country that is participated in the Hauge Convention. Each state is going to have a different method of helping you get an apostille for your certified marriage certificate. You can usually find this information on your state's health or records website. It is often better, however, to actually call the office yourself. This way you can be sure that you actually have up to date information and aren't relying on a website that nobody has had the time to update for a while.
It might also be helpful to contact the US State Department of Authentications to make sure that you've got all of your ducks in a row.
What If I Got Married Overseas?
Almost exclusively, a city, county or state is only going to have marriage certificates on file for people who actually got married there. If, for example, you were married in Prague, you probably won't be able to obtain a copy of your marriage certificate from the records office for Eugene, Oregon.
So what are you supposed to do?
The best course of action you have when you need to be able to prove that you are legally married, is to contact the United States Embassy or Consulate office in the country that the marriage ceremony took place.
Here is where you can find a list of the different Consular Offices for the United States.
You can also visit the State Department's website to find out more about getting married overseas.
Hey! What If I Need to Prove that I'm Not Married?
We aren't sure why you would need this, but we understand that sometimes things happen. Identities get mixed up, etc.
While it isn't common in all states, some states actually do issue a Letter of No-Marriage. Often you will need extenuating circumstances to obtain this letter (like proving you aren't already married so that you can get married in a foreign country).
First, you are going to have to do a search for marriage certificates in your name. This is easier if you have a specific state in which to search, as marriage certificates aren't filed nationally; they are only filed with a specific state.
If no marriage certificate can be found you can request a notarized copy of the No-Marriage Letter from the state in which you ran your search. There is typically a specific form that you are going to need to fill out. You might also have to prove your identity before the letter will be issued. There may also be associated fees involved.
Remember: this varies from state to state so check with your local authorities as to how you can prove that you AREN'T (or WEREN'T) married.
It's easy to get intimidated by the process of getting married—especially in terms of taking care of all of the legal stuff that happens after the ceremony. This is why knowing how and why you should get a copy of your marriage certificate is important. Hopefully this has shown you that the process doesn't need to be a scary one. In fact, we're willing to bet that you'll find the process of getting (and using) your marriage certificate is going to be downright easy!