What Makes Marriage and Separation Documents Legal?

How Marriage and Separation Documents Become Legally Valid

Getting married is a major life event, and so is getting separated from a spouse or civil partner. Like most significant life events, there is paperwork and legal red tape to go through in order to make these actions legally recognized.
Every marriage—and some separations—involves legal documents which have to be completed, submitted, and processed before the marriage or separation is considered to be valid under the law.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these documents, and discover how they become legally valid.

What Is a Marriage License?

A marriage license is a government document an engaged couple must apply for and receive before they can be legally wed.
Every US state has its own laws regulating who can get a marriage license. There are some similarities between most states, however. Here are some of the common facts concerning getting a marriage license:
  • Both participants must be the legal age for getting married in that state. If one of the participants is underage, the couple may still be able to get a marriage license (depending on the state) if they provide proof of parental consent.
  • You and your fiancé(e) should bring your birth certificates, a piece of government-issued picture ID, and your Social Security Number cards when you go to the relevant state court building to get your marriage license.
  • If one of you was previously married, you will be asked to provide proof that your previous marriage was legally dissolved through a writ of annulment or divorce.
  • You must get married in the state that issues your marriage license; you can’t use it for a wedding ceremony in a different state.
Pro Tip: Many states offer you the chance to file for a name change at the same time you apply for your marriage license. If you or your fiancé(e) wants to have a name change as part of your marriage, this is an excellent opportunity to start the process.
Depending on the state you live in, you may receive your marriage license right away or there may be a waiting period. After you receive your marriage license, there may be an additional waiting period before you can have your wedding ceremony—again, this depends on the state you live in.
Finally, be advised that most marriage licenses come with an expiry date. On average, a license is good for at least 30 days from the date it is issued. But, don’t leave this to chance; check with the issuing clerk when you apply for your license.

When Does a Marriage Become Legal?

Most couples believe their marriage is legal when they are declared lawfully wedded by their officiant—the person who performs the wedding ceremony. This is not exactly true.
In fact, a marriage doesn’t technically become legal (in most states) until the following occurs:
  • The marriage license must be signed by the couple, one or more witnesses, and the officiant conducting the ceremony.
  • The officiant must take the signed marriage license to the appropriate court office to have it filed. This typically must be done within 14 days after the ceremony takes place.
  • Once the license has been filed, the marriage is officially legal.
After filing the license, the court office will send out a marriage certificate. This document acts as confirmation that your marriage is officially recognized by the state.

What Documents Should You Update after Getting Married?

Your marriage paperwork doesn’t end with getting a license. There are other legal documents you may need to update shortly after you get married.
If you or your spouse has elected for a name change as part of your marriage, there are several things you need to attend to. The to-do list could include getting any of the following items updated:
  • Driver’s license or government-issued picture ID
  • Passport
  • Bank accounts
  • Credit cards
  • Health insurance policy and card
  • Auto insurance policy and papers
  • Vehicle registration
You should also ask the insurance broker handling your vehicle and health insurance if your married status alters your existing policies; the change in marital status can sometimes result in a favorable adjustment to your insurance premiums.
Pro Tip: Most vendors and officials won’t change your name in their records until you have a copy of your marriage certificate to show them, so you will have to wait until it arrives before proceeding.
You may want to ask your employer if they want to make a revised copy of your Employment Contract so it includes your new surname. They may also want to revise your business email address and the name of your network account, if applicable.
Finally, you should consider revisiting your Last Will and Testament to see what changes you would like to make. At the very least, your name will have to be updated on the existing document.

What Is a Separation Agreement?

A Separation Agreement is a legal document used by married couples who want to part ways and live in different residences, but remain legally married. While it may seem odd for a married couple to separate and yet stay married, there are a number of situations where this type of arrangement can be beneficial for both parties. For example:
  • You may believe that you and your spouse could reconcile after a period of separation.
  • There may be tax advantages available if you remain married to your spouse.
  • Staying married may permit you to share each other’s healthcare insurance and other benefits.
There are also cases where a married couple may not want to divorce due to religious beliefs, but find they are no longer able to live together as a couple.
Any couple can choose to informally separate while staying married without any legal arrangement. In this case, using a Separation Agreement can help the spouses to negotiate the terms of the separation, including items like spousal support, child custody and visitation, child support payments, and shared ownership of property like homes and vehicles. In this situation, a Separation Agreement would be helpful, but would typically not be recognized as a formal legal agreement.
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What Is a Petition for Separation?

If a couple wants to have their separation legally recognized, one or both of them must file a petition for legal separation.
A petition for separation is a legal document that one or both spouses file with a clerk at the relevant state county courthouse. The petition is essentially an application for a legally recognized separation, and is processed in a similar manner to a petition for divorce.
In some states, both spouses can file the petition for separation together. Otherwise, one of the spouses files the petition, and the other spouse gets served papers informing them of the petition and summoning them to a scheduled court hearing.
The form used for a petition for separation typically allows for the attachment of a Separation Agreement. This option gives couples the opportunity to provide the desired framework for their separation. It also shows the court the level of negotiation and compromise you and your spouse have shown during the breakup.

When Does Separation Become Legal?

After the petition for separation is filed, a court hearing is scheduled. This hearing is very similar to one that takes place in divorce proceedings. The court will determine the conditions of the separation, particularly as it involves finances, property, and the custody and care of minor children.
If the couple has provided a Separation Agreement, the court will consider using the agreement as the basis of the legal terms of the separation. In some cases, the court may adopt the entire Separation Agreement as it is.
After the hearing, a court order is issued that contains the final conditions of the separation. At this point, the spouses are now legally separated.
One common reason for getting a legal separation is that—in many states—a full divorce will not be granted by the court until a couple has been legally separated for a specified period of time. That said, a legally separated couple is under no obligation to eventually file for divorce. They can remain legally separated for as long as they are willing to stay married while living apart.
If the time does come when a divorce is desired, having an established Separation Agreement can be very helpful as it may be accepted as the final settlement arrangement between spouses.

Legal Marriages and Legal Separations

Marriages and separations are more than just major events in our lives. They are part of our legal identities, and need to be properly legitimized under the law accordingly.
If you are planning a wedding for yourself or helping a loved one organize their nuptials, be sure to look up your state’s requirements for getting a marriage license issued, and schedule this task so it neatly fits with the planned date of the wedding ceremony.
Alternately, you can casually separate from a spouse or civil partner without taking any legal action. However, if the two of you are separating as a prelude to getting a full divorce, establishing a legal separation may be required.
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