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  • Writer's pictureSavannah Wadsworth

Marriage Licenses and Certificates: Everything You Need to Know to Get Ready For Your Big Day

Marriage License vs. Marriage Certificate:

What's the difference?

A marriage license is what you get first, and it's basically an application to be married. We’ll go over how to apply for the marriage license.

Once you've filled it all out, had your ceremony, gotten it signed, and your officiant has turned it back into the county, then you will receive a marriage certificate that proves that you are married.

Applying For Your Marriage License:

What you need to bring with you to the county clerk’s office.

Each state is different so the items you will have to bring to the county clerk’s office depend on where your ceremony will be taking place. You must be at least 18 years old.

In California, both of you will need to appear in person (there are exceptions so please ask me about your specific situation) all you will need to bring with you is:

  • a valid government issued picture identification that includes the full legal name and date of birth (if you don’t have this then you must provide a certified copy of your birth certificate and another acceptable form of picture I.D. but you have to check with the clerk to see what other forms of I.D. will be accepted)

  • cash or credit card to pay the application fee (each county is different but most do not allow payment with checks)

  • if either party has been granted marriage dissolution (divorce) within the last year, a certified copy of the final judgment must be brought with you

What do you need to know before applying for the license?

Before you can apply for a marriage license, you need to know where and when you'll be getting married because in some states you have to file your marriage license application in the county in which you'll be getting married.

  • In California, you can apply for a marriage license in any county and get married anywhere in California.

You’ll need to know whether you want a public or confidential marriage license.

  • A “public” California marriage license is a marriage license that is available to the public for viewing.

  • A “confidential” marriage license allows all the personal information on a marriage license to be protected from public view. Only a court order or a notarized application by either spouses would be able to obtain a copy of the information.

  • To obtain a Confidential Marriage License, party A and party B must be living together as a married couple.

Marriage licenses expire! Some, like in California, expire after 90 days.

  • You’ll have to wait to apply for the marriage license until you're within 90 days of your wedding or you'll end up having to apply all over again.

  • Due to COVID-19, many counties are only taking people by appointment and some of the appointments have to be made 1-2 months in advance so try not to wait till the last minute.

  • There is no waiting period in California so you’ll be issued your license the same day you apply for it and can get married the same day (but again, try not to wait till the last minute).

Name changes…

If you are a planning on changing your name, during your visit to the county clerk to apply for your marriage license is the best time to do that.

In California, the Name Equality Act of 2007 allows you to change your middle name and last name by applying for the name change right on the marriage license application.

If you wait, the only way to alter it down the road is through an official name change, which costs a bit more money (and yet another visit to the county clerk).

Making the Marriage Valid:

Who can officiate the wedding in California?

The ceremony can be officiated (called a marriage solemnization) by:

  • any judge or retired judge;

  • commissioner or retired commissioner of civil marriages;

  • commissioner, retired commissioner, or assistant commissioner of a court of record or a justice court in this state;

  • by any judge or magistrate of the United States;

  • a judge or magistrate who has resigned from office;

  • OR by a priest, minister, or rabbi of any religious denomination of the age 18 years or over—we are ordained ministers through the ULC (Universal Life Church)


In California you only need one witness for the public marriage license but in other states you may need two people to witness the ceremony, so it depends on where you will be getting married.

The license contains a place for two witnesses if you prefer.

  • You may NOT have more than two witnesses sign the official marriage license.

  • Licenses received with more than two witnesses signatures will be returned to the officiant and a duplicate marriage license will need to be purchased.

  • Confidential marriage licenses do not require any witnesses so witnesses to the ceremony will NOT need to sign the marriage license

What needs to be said at the wedding?

You and your future spouse are free to read your own vows at the wedding ceremony, in fact, I encourage it because it can make the moment a lot more personal. But there are a few things that need to be said by the officiant and both parties to be married, in order to make the marriage valid.

All that is required is the Declaration of Intent and the Pronouncement.

These are the parts of the ceremony where the couple says "I Do" and the Officiant says "I now pronounce you...".

The “Declaration of Intent” is required in California by law.

  • However, the wording itself is completely up to you and the couple. For instance, you could word the Declaration of intent as "Do you Dr. Cornelius take this most amazing and awe-inspiring moral pillar of a woman to be your....".

What do you need to do after the ceremony?

After the wedding ceremony, both you and your spouse, the witness (or witnesses), and the person officiating the wedding will need to sign the marriage license.

After the ceremony, it's the officiant's responsibility to return the marriage license to the county clerk, either by mail or in person.

  • Depending on where you live, you will either be mailed a certified copy, or you will need to go in person to pick up certified copies (in which case, prepare yourself for another fee).

  • Make sure you put the correct mailing address on your marriage license application so that your marriage certificate gets mailed to you. Some counties require you to pay a separate fee to order your marriage certificate or require you to order it through the Vital Chek website. If you lose your marriage certificate, don’t fret! You can always request a copy from the county clerk’s office (in the county where the marriage certificate was issued.

That's all you need to know!

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