How Marriage Works

Marriage is about beginning a new life with a loved one, but it's also a legal process.
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Marriage is one of the most important experiences of a person's life, but like any legal process, it can get complicated. Depending on where you live, there may be laws governing who can get married and how a marriage license can be obtained. Some couples also face the decision of whether or not to have a prenuptial agreement. In this article, we'll look at some of the laws surrounding marriage, including age requirements and marriage licenses. We'll also explore some of the many legal benefits to being married. Finally, we'll take a look at other forms of marriage, such as polygamy, civil unions and domestic partnerships, and find out where they fit in American law and society.

In order to have a legally recognized marriage, a couple has to have a valid marriage license. An application must be filled out in order to get a marriage license, and each state has its own laws regarding who is eligible to receive a license. The legal age to marry varies from state to state; in most states, both parties must be 18 years old in order to marry without their parents' permission. However, in some states, people as young as 12 years old can marry with a parent's permission, though some cases may need the approval of a judge. Some states also require blood tests for sexually transmitted diseases or for the couple to undergo pre-marital counseling.


When applying for a marriage license, the bride and groom must appear together in the marriage license office in their town. Official identification is required; it can be a birth certificate or a drivers license, depending on state law. A nominal fee usually accompanies the application ($60 in Hawaii). The couple fills out an official application and gives it to the marriage license agent. In some states, there's a short waiting period of a few days before the license is issued. Once approved, a marriage license is generally valid for 30 days to a year.

After a couple gets married, a marriage certificate is proof that a marriage has taken place.


Benefits of Marriage

Besides love and companionship, there are many benefits to marriage, especially in the eyes of the law. In fact, there are 1,138 federal benefits, rights and responsibilities associated with marriage [ref]. In this section, we'll list some of those benefits.

Spouses have or are entitled to:


  • visitation rights and can make medical decisions, unless otherwise specified in a living will
  • benefits for federal employees -- many of which are also offered by private employers -- such as sick leave, bereavement leave, days off for the birth of a child, pension and retirement benefits, family health insurance plans
  • some property and inheritance rights, even in the absence of a will
  • the ability to create life insurance trusts
  • tax benefits, such as being able to give tax free gifts to a spouse and to file joint tax returns
  • the ability to receive Medicare, Social Security, disability and veteran's benefits for a spouse
  • discount or family rates for auto, health and homeowners insurance
  • immigration and residency benefits, making it easier to bring a spouse to the U.S. from abroad
  • visiting rights in jail

Social scientists have also found many positive benefits for married couples and families, including fewer incidents of poverty and mental health problems in families where the parents are married rather than simply cohabitating. Many studies also support the idea that children living with married parents do better in a variety of ways than children in any other living arrangement [ref].


Other Types of Marriage

Polygamy is associated by some with Mormonism, but the Mormon church officially condemns the practice of polygamy, which is illegal.
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Polygamy, the "state or practice of having more than one spouse simultaneously," was outlawed by the federal government in 1862 [Black's Law Dictionary]. Still, polygamy exists in the United States, though usually secretly and with great stigma attached. One can also find polygamy in popular culture, such as in the television show "Big Love." In the U.S., polygamy is frequently associated with Mormonism, although the Mormon church condemns the practice, which is also called plural marriage. An estimated 30,000 to 60,000 polygamists live in Utah and the surrounding states, most of them made up of fundamentalist Mormons [ref]. For more information about polygamy, check out How Polygamy Works.

Civil Unions, Domestic Partnerships, Gay Marriage

A civil union is a legal entity that offers same-sex couples the same legal rights and benefits as marriage. Civil union laws have been proposed in various state legislatures, but so far they are only legal in Vermont, New Jersey and Connecticut [ref].


California allows domestic partnerships for same-sex couples and for opposite-sex couples in which one partner is at least 62 years old, and many employers and universities offer domestic partnership benefits as well. Like civil unions, domestic partnerships offer many of the same legal benefits that opposite-sex married couples receive, including inheritance and hospital visitation rights. Besides California, domestic partnerships are allowed in New York City, Maine and the District of Columbia.

Currently same-sex marriage is illegal in most states and on the federal level, but some states, cities and employers offer marriage benefits to same-sex partners, such as in the form of civil unions.
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Hawaii allows "reciprocal beneficiary relationships," which are registered through the state's Department of Health [ref]. Reciprocal beneficiary relationships are only available to people who are at least 18 years old and prohibited from marrying by state law, which includes same-sex couples but can also mean a brother and sister or aunt and nephew [ref]. Two people who enter a reciprocal beneficiary relationship aren't automatically considered a couple -- it simply means that they gain many of the legal rights afforded to married couples, which, for example, could be important to a brother and sister who are supporting each other financially.

The Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 defined marriage as "only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife" [ref]. This definition applies for federal purposes only, and states are free to create their own laws with regards to marriage. However, states are not legally required to recognize same-sex marriages conducted in other states that allow them. Currently, Massachusetts is the only state in which gay marriage is legal. Some states have explicitly outlawed gay marriage, while a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage has failed more than once to pass in the United States Senate [ref].

C­ommon Law Marriage

In order for a couple to be considered to have a common law marriage, they must live together, agree that they are married and present themselves as a married couple, such as by changing their last names and filing joint tax returns. If you've heard that any couple that resides together for seven consecutive years is automatically considered common law husband and wife, that's not true. The amount of time that a couple has to live together is not defined in any state, but if a couple satisfies many of the conditions for common law marriage and lives in a common law marriage state but does not want to be married, they must somehow make that intention clear.


More on Common Law Marriages

Common law marriage within the United States is legally recognized in:

  • Alabama
  • Colorado
  • District of Columbia
  • Kansas
  • Iowa
  • Montana
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah

Common law marriage is legally recognized in five states under a grandfather clause. This means that the common law marriage must have formed prior to a certain date defined by that state:


  • Georgia - union declared prior to January 1, 1997
  • Idaho - union declared prior to January 1, 1996
  • Ohio - union declared prior to October 10, 1991
  • Oklahoma - union declared prior to November 1, 1998
  • Pennsylvania - union declared prior to January 1, 2005

Common law marriage is allowed only for inheritance purposes in New Hampshire.

Finally, though a couple who has a common law marriage doesn't have a marriage license or certificate, they still must go through the legal process of obtaining a divorce in order to end their marriage.

For more information about marriage and other related topics, please check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • "About Marriage Licenses." Hawaii State Department of Health.
  • "About Reciprocal Beneficiary Relationships." Hawaii State Department of Health.
  • "Domestic Partners Registry." California Secretary of State.
  • "Common Law Marriage." National Conference of State Legislatures.
  • "Domestic Partnership FAQ." District of Columbia Department of Health.,a,3,q,573324,dohNav_GID,1787,dohNav,%7C33110%7C33120%7C33139%7C.asp#6
  • "Domestic Partner Registry." Office of Health Data and Program Management.
  • "Marriage." Legal Information Institute. Cornell Law School. Nov 11, 2005.
  • "Marriage and Divorce Data." U.S. Census Bureau. January 31, 2007.
  • "Get the Facts on Marriage." Marriage Equality USA.
  • "Marriage Rights and Benefits."
  • "New Jersey governor signs civil unions into law." The Associated Press. Dec. 21, 2006.
  • "Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2001." Household Economic Studies. February 2005.
  • "Domestic Partnership." NYC Marriage Bureau.
  • "Living the Principle: Inside Polygamy." The Salt Lake Tribune.
  • "Polygamy." The Sale Lake Tribune.
  • "Marriage Laws of the Fifty States, District of Columbia and Puerto Rico." Legal Information Institute. Cornell Law School.
  • "The Vermont Guide to Civil Unions." Vermont Secretary of State. August 2006.
  • "Wedding Traditions and Customs."
  • "Get Busy. Get Equal: Frequently Asked Questions about California Domestic Partnerships." ACLU.
  • "The Mavens' Word of the Day." Random House.
  • "Jumping the Broom." African Wedding Guide.
  • Acs, Gregory and Nelson, Sandi. "What Do "I Do"s Do? Potential Benefits of Marriage for Cohabiting Couples with Children." Urban Institute. May 24, 2004.
  • Compton, Todd M. "The Four Major Periods of Mormon Polygamy." The Signature Books Library.
  • Larson, Aaron. "Marriage Law." August 2003.
  • Miller, Marshall and Solot, Dorian. "Common Law Marriage Fact Sheet." Alternatives to Marriage Project. August 2006.
  • Murray, Shailagh. "Gay Marriage Amendment Fails in Senate." The Washington Post. June 8, 2006.
  • Shulman, Andy. "Guide to the Jewish Wedding." Aish HaTorah.