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Getting Married: Steps to Take Before You Say I Do

Before you say "I Do," there are some crucial things you need to do to protect yourself and your assets. Learn how marriage will impact your legal and financial status and create the documents you need to safeguard you and your partner.

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Prenuptial Agreement

A Prenuptial Agreement is a contract used by two people who are about to marry and wish to sort out current and future financial and property matters ...

Getting married is an exciting time in your life. However, marriage is more than just a celebration of love — it’s a legal commitment to another person.

Before jumping into this commitment, there are some essential things to consider. Marriage can be a rewarding, lifelong bond, but just in case, there are ways to protect yourself and your assets.

In this guide, we'll discuss what you should consider before getting married or remarried, how to get married, and how your marriage impacts you legally and financially.


Last Updated: December 6, 2021

Table of Contents


What is a marriage?

Marriage is the union of two people. It’s considered a legal and personal commitment. For a marriage to be legal, it must meet the following requirements:

  • Both spouses must agree to it voluntarily
  • Neither spouse can currently be married to someone else
  • Both spouses must be at least 18 years old unless there’s parental consent (except in Nebraska, where you must be 19 years old, and Mississippi, where you must be 21 years old)

What is a common law marriage?

Common law marriages consist of two people in a romantic relationship who are considered married under common law. The couple isn't formally registered as married in these relationships and hasn't performed a civil or religious ceremony. Under some state laws, common law couples receive similar rights as married couples, including:

To be considered common law, a couple must intend to become married and present themselves publicly as if they are married, meaning that they act in public and live as a couple. They must also meet the same legal requirements as a married couple.

Currently, the following states recognize common law marriage:

Additionally, these states recognize common law marriage under some circumstances:

  • New Hampshire: State statute only recognizes common law marriages for estate purposes, thus the marriage is not legally recognized until one partner passes away and the surviving partner claims their inheritance (N.H. Stat. §457:39)
  • Oklahoma: State statutes require couples to get a marriage license, but case law recognizes common law marriages in Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island: State statue doesn't expressly permit common law marriages, but case law recognizes common law marriages in Rhode Island

Common law couples aren’t required to file paperwork or have legal documentation of their relationship. As a result, common law marriages can be tricky to prove in the event of a breakup if one spouse takes the other to court over assets. If you and your partner are common law, creating a Common Law Agreement can help protect you if you separate by detailing your rights, assets, liabilities, and more.

There’s a common belief that if a couple lives together for a number of years, they’re automatically in a common law marriage. This simply isn’t true, especially since most states don’t even recognize common law marriages. There’s no time requirement for how long a couple must live together before they become common law as it’s based on intent.

If you don't live in a state that recognizes common law marriages, you can use a Cohabitation Agreement to help combine your assets and debts. A Cohabitation Agreement's purpose is to protect both parties and help avoid having a court decide on divisions of assets or support payments.


Important conversations to have before getting married

Getting married is a big commitment, so it’s important to do your due diligence beforehand. You should consider some essential things first, especially since some decisions, like getting a Prenuptial Agreement, cannot be made once you are legally married. Before getting married, here are some important things you should discuss with your future spouse.

How to handle future problems

Even the best relationships experience problems from time to time. While some conflict is natural and even healthy, it’s crucial to handle these issues appropriately. Before you get married, have a conversation about how you will handle problems when they arise.

Consider outlining your strategy in a Cohabitation Agreement. This way, you can refer back to your agreed upon plan when emotions are high.

Financial states

You will become responsible for your partner's finances once you are married (unless you sign a Prenuptial Agreement). Before you commit to each other, discuss your current assets, liabilities, and debts.

Decide what parts of your financial life you’d like to combine and what you’d like to remain separate. If there are any finances you’d like to keep separate from your partner, consider signing a Prenuptial Agreement.

Kids

Make sure you’re on the same page regarding starting a family. Many people go into marriages already knowing whether they want children or not, but not everyone has the same intentions.

Additionally, if you already have children, you should consider creating or updating your Last Will and Testament. Having this document ensures that all of your loved ones are looked after in case you unexpectedly pass away.

Should we get a Prenup?

A Prenuptial Agreement (commonly called a Prenup) is a legal document engaged couples create before marriage. It sets out each individual's current assets and liabilities and how to divide property if the marriage ends.

Essentially, it establishes the individual ownership of property and whether the divorced parties will share any property after the marriage ends. This way, in the event of a marital breakdown, spouses don't have any claim to any assets that they want to keep separate from their spouses.

A Prenuptial Agreement is not just for couples with significant assets, but for any couple looking to protect their personal property. Both partners can list their assets and debts before marriage to keep their property and debts from becoming shared.

Prenuptial Agreements are only valid if signed before you are married since many of your assets could be considered marital property.

It might seem counterintuitive to discuss breaking up before you even get married, but you can never be sure of what the future might hold. It’s best to have this conversation with your partner beforehand, just in case.


How do I get married?

Regardless of what kind of marriage ceremony you choose to have, you must meet the same requirements before the ceremony. To be legally married, both parties must:

  • Be of legal age in the state of the wedding (or have parental consent)
  • Provide legal identification
  • Provide proof of the termination of any previous marriages
  • Have a valid marriage license

How much is a marriage license?

The cost of a marriage license will vary depending on your location. Generally, a marriage license will range from $30 to up to $100. In some states, couples that have completed premarital counseling or a particular marriage educational course will pay a lower price for their marriage license.

How long does it take to get a marriage license?

To get a marriage license, at least one of the spouses must go to a courthouse, city hall, or town office. You must fill out and sign a marriage license application before a clerk and pay the required fee. Here’s how long it can take to process your marriage license after your application:

  • 1 day: South Carolina
  • 3 days: Alaska, District of Columbia, Florida (upon completion of a premarital preparation course), Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington
  • 5 days: Minnesota
  • 6 days: Wisconsin

Some states require a waiting period after receiving a marriage licence before a marriage can take place. These waiting periods are as follows:

  • 1 day: Delaware, Illinois, and New York
  • 2 days: Maryland
  • 3 days: Iowa, Louisiana, and Texas

Once you’ve received your marriage license, the ceremony can take place. After the ceremony, you can go pick up your marriage certificate or have it mailed to you.

Kinds of marriage ceremonies

In the past, marriage was typically a religious ceremony performed by officials from that religion in a church. Today, there are several different ways to become legally married, and all of them are equally legal.

Religious ceremony

A common way to get married is by having a religious ceremony in a church performed by a religious clergy qualified to perform marriages in the state.

Courthouse marriage (civil ceremony)

These kinds of marriages are becoming increasingly more common due to their secular nature. A marriage commissioner qualified to operate in the state where the marriage occurs will perform a courthouse marriage.

Online marriages

If an individual cannot be present to get married, online marriage (known as marriage by proxy) might be an option. This way, couples who can’t physically be together due to military service, imprisonment, or travel restrictions can still get married. If both partners cannot be present, it’s called a double proxy wedding.

Online marriages are also used when the two people getting married can be together and they connect remotely to a marriage officiant. This is the case in Colorado.


Marriage is more than a romantic commitment to another person — it’s a legal commitment as well. Here are the legal aspects of marriage you should consider.

Changing your surname

When you sign your marriage certificate, it doesn’t automatically change your name. If you decide to take your spouse’s surname, once you have your official marriage certificate, you will need to use it to update your name for the following places:

  • Your Social Security card
  • Your ID or driver’s license
  • Your bank accounts
  • Your insurance
  • Your utility accounts
  • Your employee information at your work

There are no legal consequences for keeping your given surname. However, if you have or want children, it might present some minor obstacles if you have a different surname from them. For example, if you’re traveling to the United Kingdom and have a different surname then your child, you will need to provide proof of your relationship.

Resolving issues or disputes in court

When you marry someone, you receive a type of spousal privilege that prevents the court system from requiring one spouse to testify against the other in a criminal legal proceeding. Courts and governments in the U.S. may recognize this privilege during legal actions to protect a couple’s relationship from undue harm. However, there are situations (such as domestic abuse cases) where courts can make exceptions and ask you to provide testimony.

When providing testimony, spouses can claim communications during the marriage are privileged, another spousal privilege that protects confidential information shared between spouses. Keep in mind that spousal privilege laws vary by state, and state laws may also differ from federal law, which applies to cases in the Federal Courts.

If you marry someone with children from a previous relationship, you may consider adopting your new stepchildren. Most states make the adoption process simpler for stepparents; you may not be required to do as many screenings or may not need to be represented by a lawyer. However, many states will not approve stepparent adoption until the couple has been married and living together for over a year. In some cases, courts may even override a biological parent’s objection to adoption in favor of the stepparent.

In general, biological parents are required to pay child support after a marriage ends, even if their other parent remarries. Despite this, in some circumstances and states, new spouses may have a legal obligation to support their stepchildren financially while married to the children's biological parents. Generally, step parents are not responsible for child support for stepchildren. If you choose to adopt, authorities will consider you a legal guardian and responsible for the care of your children.

Making healthcare decisions

Once you’re married, many healthcare professionals will often defer to your spouse for healthcare decisions when you can’t make them for yourself. To ensure your spouse always has the authority to make these kinds of decisions, you should appoint them as your health care agent (also known as a proxy) with a Medical Power of Attorney.

You should discuss your thoughts on medical procedures with your significant other and complete a Living Will to document your treatment preferences.


How does marriage impact my financial status?

From shared assets to joint benefits, marriage typically changes the way you handle your finances.

Shared finances

If you’re in a long term relationship, chances are you’ve already started combining some finances with your significant other. Many couples share a bank account to pay for shared bills, such as rent, utilities, or phone plans.

Although it’s up to you to share access to certain accounts, your spouse becomes entitled to a portion of your estate once you’re married. Even if you divorce, you may still be responsible for each other’s finances.

To modify this entitlement, you must specify separate assets before your wedding day. A Prenuptial Agreement specifies the assets that are shared and separate, helping to determine:

  • How to divide properties, assets, and joint debts
  • If one partner must provide alimony payments to the other
  • Restrictions on what each spouse can inherit from the other’s estate

Although some people may be reluctant to sign a Prenup, it is especially beneficial if you have children from a previous relationship or have significant assets that you wish to keep separate.

Shared property

Once married, you and your spouse will collect shared assets known as joint or marital property, such as real estate, vehicles, and more, in addition to being entitled to a portion of each other’s estate.

If one spouse dies without creating a Last Will and Testament, most jurisdictions consider the surviving spouse the first person with a claim to the inheritance. With a divorce, the court will often divide joint property equally unless otherwise stated in a Prenuptial Agreement or during divorce negotiations.

Often, one of the most significant investments most married couples make is their home. Depending on your state, courts may consider property acquired before marriage to be separate. However, if you purchase property together, each partner has an equal interest in the property title.

To prevent disputes about who is entitled to what, create a new Last Will and Testament when you get married to ensure it reflects your current wishes. If you wish to allocate a portion of your estate to your significant other, do so explicitly in your Last Will. Also, specify the other assets you want to leave to other family members and friends.

Tax benefits

After marriage, you have the option to file joint or separate tax returns. To determine whether you’re eligible to file jointly, you must be married before December 31 of the tax year. If your wedding is not until the following January, you still qualify for single tax filing.

Filing a joint return has several benefits, including deductions and borrowing personal tax credits to lower the tax bracket of one partner. Though, in some cases, filing taxes individually may also lower your tax bill. Be sure to consult with an accountant when determining your tax filing status.

Married couples can also avoid paying gift and estate taxes. Generally, if someone gives you money or leaves you a portion of their estate, you have to pay taxes on it (as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) considers it income). However, married couples are often able to pass assets to their spouse at any time without paying taxes on the transfer. If a spouse passes away and leaves money and other assets to their surviving spouse, the surviving spouse generally doesn't have to pay estate and gift tax on those gifts.

Beneficiary status

An excellent advantage to marriage is the ability to list your spouse as a beneficiary on various health, retirement, life, and financial insurance plans.

For instance, when listed as a beneficiary, spouses are often entitled to the benefits from:

  • Health care insurance
  • Social security
  • Disability benefits
  • Employee benefits
  • Retirement plans or pensions
  • Life insurance policies

If your spouse dies without a Last Will and Testament, you may still be able to claim your inheritance. However, the enforcement of this ability varies by jurisdiction.


Getting remarried

If you’ve found your soulmate after a previous marriage, you’re probably excited to move forward and turn over a new leaf in your life.

If you are thinking about getting remarried, you could be wondering if there is anything you should do to wrap up your previous marital matters and protect yourself, your family, and your future spouse if things don’t go as planned.

Make sure you are divorced

This suggestion may seem absurd, but attempting to get married without being properly divorced can happen, mainly because the difference between separation and divorce can be unclear.

A separation means a couple is not together anymore, but it doesn’t mean they’re legally divorced. Married couples who separate might reconcile in the future and remain married or choose to proceed with a divorce.

One way to check if your divorce was legitimate is to go to a vital record office in your state and attempt to pull a divorce decree (sometimes called a divorce certificate).

Couples who divorce in another country may find that their divorce isn’t valid in the United States. The rules and requirements regarding marriage and divorce in other countries can differ significantly from laws in the States. Additional conditions, like evidence that both spouses had an opportunity to be heard before the divorce’s finalization, may be required before the divorce is recognized.

Similarly, you may want to check with your local records office to ensure everything is in order.

Protect yourself with a Prenuptial Agreement

A Prenuptial Agreement (often called a prenup) can seem ominous because it addresses how you will divide your estate after your relationship has ended. Still, this Agreement is beneficial, especially if you:

  • Have children with someone else
  • Want to protect anything that personally belonged to you before your relationship started, such as personal property, inheritances, businesses, or investments
  • Want to avoid disagreements or misunderstandings about current and future financial responsibilities

Prenups can save a lot of headaches (and heartaches) for you and your spouse if things don’t go as planned.

Update your estate plans

Your estate documents, like your Power of Attorney or Last Will and Testament, will likely reference your previous relationship. As you enter this new chapter of your life, you’ll want to update these documents.

It’s impossible to know when you or your loved ones might need these documents, so to protect yourself, your family, and your future spouse, you should ensure your estate documents accurately reflect your current situation.

A good rule to follow is to update your estate documents after any significant life events (including having or adopting a child, purchasing a home, and more).


Protect yourself

Getting married and committing to your partner is exciting, but not something that anyone should take lightly. It’s important to make sure that you take all the necessary steps not only to protect yourself and your assets, but to ensure the validity of your marriage.

This way, you can start this new chapter in your life with security and confidence that no matter what your future holds, you’ve made the best decisions for yourself and your partner.

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