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Living in the US

Marriage in the United States

Are you planning on getting married during your time in the United States? Congratulations! Our article offers pointers on the legal requirements, where and when you can hold your ceremony, and steps to take after the wedding.

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Legal Requirements

Marriage laws in the US are established by the individual states, not the federal government. In most states, you need to be 18 to marry, although parental consent can often be given if you are at least 16 years of age.

Marriage Licenses

In each state, you will need to obtain a marriage license from a local civil authority, usually the clerk of the circuit court of a county or city in that state. As each city or county has its own set of regulations, it is important to visit the website of the relevant county or city government before going there in person to make sure you know the correct procedure and which documents you will need to bring with you. Both parties must normally be present when you apply for your marriage license, and you and your fiancé(e) will need to swear under oath that all the information you provided in the application is true.

When you apply, be sure to bring your passport with you, and sometimes you will need to provide your birth certificate as well. In this case, make sure to bring a notarized English translation with you. If you have been previously married, you should bring the divorce decree or death certificate, along with a notarized English translation. The fee for marriage licenses varies from county to county, ranging from about $30 to up to $100. Marriage license fees may be higher for people who do not live in that state.

When and Where You Can Get Married

Some cities and counties have a waiting period between the day you apply for your marriage license and the day you can pick it up. Others require you to wait a certain number of hours or days between when the marriage license is issued and when you actually get married. Even if there is no waiting period, please note that most offices are only open Monday-Friday. To be on the safe side, you should plan on applying for your marriage license at least a week before your wedding date.

You usually have a set number of days to get married after the marriage license is issued; otherwise it loses its validity. This can range from one month to one year, so make sure you don’t get your license too far in advance of your wedding date.

Some counties or states may have residency restrictions governing who is allowed to marry within their borders. If you are not a resident of that state, you are often only allowed to get married in the county or city which issued your marriage license.

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Same-Sex Marriage

As of January 2014, same-sex marriage was legal in 18 US states, as well as the District of Columbia. In addition, civil unions are recognized in Colorado and several counties in Arizona. These laws continue to be contested in several states, however, so please visit the relevant state government website to get the most up-to-date information.

The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) makes it legal for states where same-sex marriage is not allowed to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states or countries. If you are not a resident of the county or city you wish to marry in, you must sometimes still prove that your marriage will be legal in your home county or city in order to be allowed to marry there.

Section 3 of DOMA was struck down by the US Supreme Court in June 2013, making it possible for the US government to recognize same-sex marriages. This is particularly relevant when it comes to being able to sponsor your spouse for a US visa. Same-sex spouses now have the same rights as opposite-sex spouses in terms of immigration benefits.

The Wedding Ceremony

After you have been issued your marriage license, you can be married by anyone who has been authorized by that state to perform weddings, be it a religious minister, justice of the peace, etc. Be sure to check the regulations on who can officiate your wedding in the city or county where you are getting married. Restrictions may also apply if you are bringing in your officiant from out of state.

In the US, you do not need to have a separate civil and religious wedding ceremony. You just need one ceremony, and as long as it is officiated by someone authorized to perform marriage ceremonies in that county or city, where it takes place is completely up to you – in a place of religious worship, a court house, at your home, at the beach, etc. Whoever officiates your wedding will fill out the appropriate section of the marriage license after the ceremony and return that to the circuit court, where your marriage will be recorded.

In addition, please also keep in mind that marriages which take place outside of the US are legally binding if they are officially recognized by the government of the country in which they are performed. So if you are living in the US, but want to get married in your home country or have a destination wedding at a tropical location, both of these options may also be possible.

Legal Rights for Married Couples

Although marriage laws in the US are made by the individual states, the federal government has established many rights and benefits for married couples. These include the right to file joint tax returns, the right to inherit property, and joint parenting rights, including adoption and foster care rights. Married couples also have the right to sponsor their husband or wife for a US immigration visa.

Government and employment benefits for married couples include receiving Social Security, Medicare, and disability benefits, as well as wages, workers’ compensation, and retirement plan benefits in the event of one’s spouse’s death. The medical rights afforded to married couples include hospital visitation rights and the right to make medical decisions for one’s spouse if he/she is incapacitated.

Married couples don’t always pay less taxes, however. Especially if both partners earn around the same amount, filing jointly can even push you into the next tax bracket, requiring you to pay more taxes than when you were single. Even if you file separately, the tax bracket thresholds are lower for married people.

Non-US Citizens

There are no restrictions for non-US citizens getting married in the US, as long as both parties fulfill the legal requirements for marriage in the city or county they wish to marry in. Just the fact that your marriage ceremony was performed in the US, however, does not grant you any special immigration rights. It is also important to make sure in advance that your marriage will be recognized in your home country, else it will lose its US validity as well.

Visas for Fiancé(e)s and Spouses

If you are an American citizen and wish to bring your fiancé(e) to the US to get married, he or she will require a K-1 nonimmigrant visa for a fiancé(e). With this visa, you must get married within 90 days of your fiancé(e)’s arrival in the US. After the wedding, your spouse will need to apply for permanent resident status.

If you are already married, your spouse may apply for a nonimmigrant visa for a spouse (K-3). This visa is designed so that a married couple can be together while a decision is being made on the non-US citizen’s immigrant petition. The US citizen must file this petition on his/her spouse’s behalf.

Bringing Your Spouse to the US

If you are a green card holder, your spouse may not enter the US until his/her green card petition is granted. As this is a limited category with annual quotas, it can take up to five years. The only way your spouse may join you earlier in this instance is if he/she independently qualifies for an L-1 or H-1 visa.

If, however, you are living in the US on a non-immigrant visa, your spouse may join you immediately on a dependent visa. This visa will expire at the same time as your visa expires. For an overview of the different types of visas available for the US, please see our article on US visas.

Steps to Take After the Wedding

In some states, the newlywed couple will automatically have a certificate of marriage mailed to them after it is filed in the county or city records. If not, you will need to request certified copies of your marriage certificate yourself and pay a small fee for each copy. You will need certified copies of your marriage certificate in order to gain recognition of your marriage in your home country, as well as to change your name, if you choose to do so.

If your country is party to the Hague Convention, you will need to have the certified copy of your marriage certificate attached to an apostille (a document which grants your marriage certificate international recognition as a valid legal document) in order for it to be recognized in your home country. You may need to get both documents officially translated as well. Please consult the government website of the state in which your marriage was performed for information on how to obtain an apostille.

Changing Your Name

If you choose to change your last name after you are married, make sure that your choice will be recognized in your home country. The options vary among the US states, but usually include both people taking one partner’s last name or forming a hyphenated version of the two surnames. You can also choose to not change your name at all. Some states require you to choose your married name when you apply for your marriage license, while others allow you to choose it after the wedding.

If you do decide to change your name, the first step is to get it changed on your Social Security card. Next you should change your driver’s license and passport. Check with your home country’s nearest consulate or embassy to see what documents you will need to provide to get your passport changed. Once you have all of these done, it should be fairly straightforward to change your name everywhere else, e.g. at the bank, on credit cards, with insurance companies, etc. Some might require a certified copy of your marriage certificate, so make sure to order several at once.

Updated on: December 12, 2019
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