What is a Public Marriage License?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 11 February 2020
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A public marriage license is license which gives a couple permission from a state agency to marry. It is not so much that permission would be denied to a couple seeking marriage in most cases, unless a state does not permit marriages between same-sex couples or in any other circumstances. Rather it’s a formality that can be used in numerous legal ways by a state to determine how to consider a person and what benefits or rights that person may be entitled to if married to another person.

The whole business of the public marriage license is relatively new. It wasn’t entirely common in the US to require marriage certificates as proof of marriage until the mid-1800s. Some states did require them earlier, but usually if a couple lived together they were de facto married unless it could be proved otherwise. This changed as the 19th century waned, and more and more states (and many other countries) required a certificate and some form of marriage registry.


One of the reasons that the public marriage license is called public is because any other person, given the names, date, and location of a marriage may be able to find evidence of it. This isn’t always desirable. Some people have jobs or lifestyles that may require a high degree of confidentiality. In many states they can use special notaries authorized by the courts to obtain a confidential marriage license. Unless a court order exists, these records are not accessible to the public. Stars often opt for this when planning weddings so they don’t end up with paparazzi destroying their perfect wedding day, or if they want to keep their private life as far removed from the public as possible.

Both the confidential and public marriage license aren’t proof of marriage, unless they are filed with evidence a marriage has occurred. They are permission to marry, and they may not mean anything unless a marriage actually takes place. Once the license is issued a couple may have a specific time period in which to use it. This may be a month or several months depending upon state laws. Usually licenses give people about three months after issuance to get married. The license is invalid if it is not used in the given time period and returned signed by a person who has the court’s permission to conduct a wedding.

In some cases one difference between the confidential and public marriage license is that it may require witnesses to the marriage. This can vary depending on the state. Sometimes people obtain this type of license so that they can marry without any witnesses.

In the US, the rules for getting a public marriage license are usually defined by a county clerk office. These may differ. Some county clerks still require blood tests and different forms of identification may be necessary. If a person has previously been married, they may need to bring proof of dissolution of their marriage. In other countries, various public offices may determine where a marriage license is obtainable. It’s wise to pay attention to which rules apply depending upon where the license is obtained.


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