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State and Local Marriage Laws

The federal government gives every state the power to govern its own laws regarding marriage. Every state imposes specific requirements on a couple to validate and make a marriage legal, including applying for and receiving a marriage license, taking part in a civil ceremony complete with witnesses, and filing the witness and official signatures with the appropriate government offices. 

Some states offer alternative methods to marriage, such as a covenant marriage, common law marriage or civil union. In addition, certain requirements must be met in order to be granted a divorce or legal separation, as well as achieving an annulment or qualifying a marriage as invalid--which we’ll discuss here.

Entering Into a Covenant Marriage

Since 1997, Louisiana, Arizona and Arkansas have created the option for couples to enter into covenant marriages. Couples who are already married also have the option of entering into one of these types of marriages, which essentially impose stricter limits on viable reasons for divorce. 

Generally, a couple in a covenant marriage may only be granted a divorce in the case of domestic violence, adultery or a felony resulting in jail time.  However, a couple in a covenant marriage may still be granted a divorce when filing for one outside of one of these three states.

Common Law Marriages

Common law marriages usually do not require the standard licensure and ceremony, but instead consider a couple legally wed if they cohabitate for a specific period of time. These marriage laws also vary from state to state.

Separation and Divorce

State laws on separation and divorce vary greatly. Some states require a couple to be legally separated for a certain period of time, usually several months, before an official divorce will be granted. In addition, even if a separation is not required a couple may be forced to wait through a “cooling off” period—anywhere from 30 days to a few months--before a petition for divorce will be heard and granted.

Annulment and Invalid Marriages

An annulment is a legal procedure which essentially causes a marriage to be null and void, or considered never to have happened. The difference between an annulment and a divorce is that an annulment is retroactive. Most states impose a time limit after the time of marriage to be able to file for an annulment. Reasons for seeking an annulment may include that one party was not consenting in the marriage, insane, abducted the other, killed the spouse of the other to marry them, or was deceived.

Every state also maintains definitions of invalid marriages, or putative marriages. These may include that the bride and groom are brother and sister, or one of the parties is married to someone else at the time of the wedding. Failing to obtain the correct witness and official signatures on the marriage certificate may also invalidate a marriage.

Same-Sex Marriages

Laws governing same-sex marriages and unions also vary between states. Some states define marriage in their constitutions as a union between a man and a woman only, thus preventing the possibility of two same-sex partner marrying in that state. Many of these states offer civil unions or domestic partnerships to recognize same-sex unions, but these do not provide the same legal benefits and recognition that marriages do.


State-Specific Marriage Laws:


California Marriage Law

Texas Marriage Law



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