Permission to Wed: The Marriage License
by Michael Kabel

Here's a dry definition for a pretty dry issue: In the strictest terms, marriage licenses are defined as written permission from a legal authority for two people to enter into matrimony. In the United States, the power to grant licenses usually falls to the individual states. Some counties (and Louisiana parishes), however, may include additional requirements for a license to be obtained.

The Purpose

The purpose of the license is to allow state governments to keep accurate records regarding their population. Once an application is filed, the state will conduct a routine inquiry into the two people involved. State record keeping officials look for information pertaining to divorce records, notices of improper marriages, or disease records. The one- to six-day waiting period is also a de facto "thinking period" for couples before they become married.
Some states allow marriages without marriages without licenses, as a form of common law marriage, called "informal marriages" or "marriages by habit." By tradition, however, the license makes the marriage "real" in the eyes of society.
Many groups, including the American Libertarian Party, oppose marriage licenses as an invasion of individual civil rights. However, international human rights law and the U.S. Constitution prohibit forbidding a man and woman from entering into matrimony. Some church groups also believe that since marriage is a contact with God, no permission from the State is necessary.

The blood test
The states of Connecticut, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, and the District of Columbia require blood tests as a prerequisite to obtaining a license. The tests are used to determine if an applicant carries a venereal or otherwise contagious disease. Guidelines for when to take the test vary among the several states.

Where & how to apply
The Department of Vital Records in each state normally grants marriage licenses. Information about individual offices and locations can be found at your state's official website. Some states require that both applicants be present at the time the application is filed. Others require only one applicant to file.
State residency requirements vary, with many states granting marriage licenses to residents of other states under certain conditions. The legal marriage age is also left to the state, though as a rule an individual must be at least 18 years old to marry without parental permission (19 in Nebraska.) Written permission by one parent is required for minors to marry in some cases.
The states of Arizona, Arkansas, and Louisiana have passed Covenant Marriage laws that provide an optional guideline to the license. Covenant couples agree to pre-marital counseling and to limit the terms of any possible divorce.

What to bring
In most states official documentation of identity, such as a driver's license, passport, or birth certificate, is sufficient to apply. Many states also require a social security card or proof of social security registration as additional verification.
The fee for a marriage license varies greatly according to state. As a timesaving tip, however, find out what the fee is and go prepared to pay cash.
You may also be asked to provide your mother's maiden name and other family information to assist state record keeping efforts.