As a wedding coordinator, I’ve only ever truly messed up one wedding. It was my largest of the year (200 guests), most remote (on an island), and the longest (the day started at 10 A.M. with a two-hour Hindu ceremony and ended with a dance party that went until sunrise).
In the weeks leading up to the wedding, I spoke with the bride several times about the ceremony (her family was Hindu, the groom’s was not). I talked to a friend who’s a practicing Hindu and read as many articles as I could find to inform my white person, non-Hindu brain. By the day before the wedding, I felt confident that I could honor the ceremony that the couple had spent so much time and energy planning.
What I didn’t plan on was the officiant leaving without signing the license. In his defense, he’d done his job. He led a communal, joyous, spiritual service that united two people and their families. Then, he ate some lunch and hopped on a ferry back to the mainland.
When I realized that he was gone, I panicked. This rarely happens to me at a wedding because it’s my job to remain cool and collected. It helps that at a wedding, 99 percent of problems are solvable. They’re not always easy to solve, but there is at least one viable solution — except for when the officiant leaves before signing the license. You can’t solve for that because not signing the license is quite literally the only way to mess up a wedding.
The Only Three Things You Need to Get Married
Despite what you might have read or seen, there are exactly three things that you need to get married (in the eyes of the law, anyways): a license, an officiant, and each other. Everything else is just gravy. Lovely, fun, exciting gravy, but gravy all the same. In the eyes of Uncle Sam (in the United States, that is), all that matters is that you sign that piece of paper (which can cost up to $120) and mail it back within the specified timeframe.
Couples always forget this part. To help, I’ve made it one of my standard questions as I build out a wedding day timeline: “When would you like to sign the license?” Usually, the answer is immediately after the ceremony (unless, of course, tradition or preference dictate otherwise). It’s easiest to meet a couple at the end of the aisle, squirrel them, their officiant, and their two witnesses away, take 10 minutes, and sign the darn thing. Then it doesn’t matter how blasted they get or how long they party. The legal part is done.
In the case of the couple last summer, we didn’t do this because after their ceremony, they immediately moved into extensive and lengthy family photos. I didn’t press the issue because we were only halfway through the day; after lunch, the guests would retire for a couple of hours before returning at 5 P.M. for dinner and dancing. I assumed that the officiant, a family friend, would be sticking around. I was wrong.
Thankfully, the couple didn’t care. “We’ll just go to his temple when we get home,” the bride told me. “It’s not a big deal.”
Her peace of mind put me at ease. As much as I kicked myself that I’d let my eyes off the guy, the bride was right: She and her new husband could totally sign the license after their wedding day. In the state where they got married, marriage licenses are legal for a full 60 days.
What mattered most was that the couple was present and emotionally available to enjoy a day that was filled with meaning and memories. That fancy piece of paper? It was important but not as much as their love.
Tips to Keep in Mind about Your Marriage License
Getting Ordained Online
One of the very best resources that I’ve found about marriage licenses is the Universal Life Church, a.k.a. where people go when they get ordained online. If you can get past the kinda poor web design, the ULC has the most robust and comprehensive wedding law guides out there. They even break it down by state.
If you, or someone you know, gets ordained through the ULC, watch out for the online “minister store.” You don’t technically need the $49.99 “classic wedding set” that’s the default option. Instead, just opt for the $8.99 Credential of Ministry. It’s the only thing you’ll ever need to show anybody if (and that’s a big “if”) they ask you to prove that you are indeed ordained. I’m ordained through the ULC myself and have a soft spot for my shiny Credential of Ministry. It feels so official!
Getting Certified Copies of Your Marriage License
If you’re part of the couple getting married, be sure to ask for certified copies of your license. Usually, this is a box that you check on one of the many pieces of brightly colored paper that come included with the actual license that you pick up from the courthouse.
You’ve got to check a “we want certified copies” box and enclose a check to cover the cost of however many copies you want to buy (usually two or three; they’re useful if either of you change your name). Then, mail it all back alongside the “for the county” part of your license. It’s important to note that license processes will vary by state and jurisdiction, so your process might vary slightly depending on where you are getting married.
Technically, you don’t need a certified copy of your marriage license, but many couples like to have it, if only has extra proof that their marriage is indeed legal and recorded. (If you’re already married and don’t have this, don’t worry. You can always buy certified copies. Just check with the locality where you were married.)
Understanding the Dates on Your Marriage License
Finally, there are two important sets of dates to know when it comes to your marriage license. First, know if your state has a “waiting period.” This is the amount of time between when you get the license and when you can legally sign it. So if you’re getting married on June 15, you’ll need the license by, at the very latest, June 12 in order to sign it on June 15.
In the two states where I primarily do weddings — Oregon and Washington — the waiting period is three days. You cannot waive it for any reason in Washington; Oregon’s a bit more lenient. Check out the ULC’s wedding laws map for your state’s specific rules.
Second, know how soon after your wedding you need to return the “for the county” version of the license (i.e. the ugly, bureaucratic-looking one; it’ll be clearly marked). In Washington, you’ve got to get the license back to the county within 30 days of the ceremony. In Oregon, it’s five days.
The easiest way to make sure you hit that deadline is to entrust your signed license to someone you trust. I often do this for my clients and even mail it off for them the next day. (It’s why I always carry stamps.) But, really, it can be anyone whom you know won’t drunkenly misplace your license after their fifth round of specialty cocktails. If you’re getting married in a church or other faith organization, your officiant will usually take care of mailing off the legal bit.