If you plan to get married in California, you must first apply for a California marriage license in any county clerk's office.
You and your prospective spouse must apply together, unless either or both of you have sufficient reason for applying absentee.
The official who will process your application is the county clerk (an elected official) or their authorized deputy or assistant (the clerk's hirees).
Note: We're jumping ahead here, but you can also obtain a confidential marriage license from a county clerk approved notary public.
You will not be issued a marriage license if you apply while under the influence of alcohol or narcotic drugs. Furthermore, you will not be issued a license if you lack the capacity to enter into marriage.
Public or confidential license
California offers two different types of marriage licenses: public and confidential.
The main difference between a public marriage license and a confidential marriage license is a public license will become part of the public record while a confidential license will not be available to the general public for inspection.
Public marriage license
A public marriage license has the following characteristics:
- Is a public record
- Is typically cheaper
- Is available to all ages
- Is sold by the county clerk's office
- Is registered—post-solemnization—by the county recorder
- Is aggregated for use in genealogy and vital records research
Confidential marriage license
A confidential marriage license is distinguished by the following attributes:
- Is NOT a public record
- Is typically more expensive
- Is only available to adults aged 18 and over
- Is sold by the county clerk's office and authorized notaries public
- Is registered—post-solemnization—by the county clerk
- Is still included in genealogical and vital records aggregations and analysis
- Is only available to couples currently living together as spouses
- Is not available to members of a religious society or denomination having no officiant available to sign the license
Each county clerk's office maintains a publicly available list of notaries public who are registered and authorized to issue confidential marriage licenses within the county.
Note: Although confidential marriage records are not public records, they are permanent records that can be accessed through a court order.
Historical note: Confidential marriage licenses were once used by applicants to sidestep California's now-rescinded blood test requirement.
Before diving into the marriage license process, let's clear up two points of common misunderstanding:
Clerks vs Recorders
Although some county clerks hold job descriptions in addition to clerk (e.g., recorder, assessor), their "clerk" role is solely responsible for issuing marriage licenses.
Additional job distinctions to keep in mind:
- County clerks "issue" public and confidential marriage licenses.
- County clerks only "register" confidential marriage licenses.
- County recorders only "register" public marriage licenses.
License vs Certificate
Your "marriage license" will become a "marriage certificate" after it's registered. It's the same document: only the designation changes.
Payment is for the marriage license only; marriage certificate copies must be purchased separately. Payments are final; no refunds will be granted.
Public license fee
A public marriage license costs $35–108, depending on the county. Sixty-five dollars is (barely) the most commonly occurring charge: we're talking 8% of the counties, which indicates how scattershot pricing is.
Confidential license fee
A confidential marriage license costs $40–111, depending on the county. Ninety dollars is (again, barely) the most common price.
Fees listed by county
The following table shows the public and confidential fees (in U.S. dollars) for every county in California. You can click/tap a heading to sort the column.
|San Luis Obispo||100||100||0|
The marriage license application, which is structured by the State Registrar of the California State Department of Public Health, will ask you to document the following:
- Current full name
- Last name at birth or by court order, if different than current last name
- Date of birth
- Place of birth (state or country)
- Address (number and street, city, state or country, and postal code)
- Both parents' birth names and birthplaces (state or country)
- If previously married or in a state registered domestic partnership (SRDP), specify the total priors, how (e.g., dissolution, death, annulment) and when the last ended.
- New middle name or last name change after marriage
Oath, under penalty of perjury
Your signature upon the application and issued license, under penalty of perjury under California law, affirms that everything you've documented is true and accurate to the best of your knowledge and that no known legal objection to your proposed marriage exists.
Marriage name change
California's Name Equality Act of 2007 permits you to change your middle and last name after marriage using a certified copy of your marriage certificate as long as you specify your new name choice on the marriage license application.
This ability to adopt a new name after marriage is available to all Californian's—both men and women; however, if you're a nonresident who marries in California, you are bound by the name change laws of your home state, territory, or country.
Last name change options
You can change your last name to any of the following options:
- Either spouse's current last name
- Either spouse's last name at birth
- Combination of last names
- Single name combining all or a segment of either's current last name or last name at birth
Update: Effective January 1, 2017, the Name Equality Act of 2007 was revised to remove reference to "hyphenated" last names.
Wording was changed from this:
Hyphenated combination of last names
Combination of last names
This change means that you can still hyphenate your name, but also opt for a space-separated (a.k.a. double-barreled) last name.
Middle name change options
You can change your middle name to any of the following options:
- Either spouse's current last name
- Either spouse's last name at birth
- Combination of the current middle name and either spouse's current last name
- Combination of the current middle name and either spouse's last name at birth
Note: You cannot drop or segment your middle name.
Update: Effective January 1, 2017, a slight revision to the Name Equality Act of 2007 removed reference to "hyphenated" middle names.
Wording was changed from this:
Hyphenated combination of the current middle name and…
Combination of the current middle name and…
This revision relaxes middle name change options 3 and 4 (above), thereby allowing you to opt for a combined, hyphenated, or space-separated (a.k.a. double-barreled) middle name instead of only hyphenated.
First name change options
You cannot change your first name through marriage: you must petition the superior court instead.
Although California allows you to specify a new middle and last name on your marriage license application, many other states do not provide this option on their applications.
If you marry out-of-state, your non-California marriage certificate may not reflect a new name choice. This will not prevent you from changing your middle or last name in California.
Regret name choice
If you regret the new middle or last name you chose or omitted on your application and you haven't yet married, then you can return to the county clerk's office and apply for a new marriage license which will void and replace the old one.
If your marriage has already taken place and you've soured on your new name choice, then you're stuck; you cannot amend your marriage certificate after the fact. At this point, your sole remaining option is to pursue a court-petitioned name change.
Amendments to marriage certificates are reserved for clerical errors, which a name change of heart does not quality.
Your issued marriage license will contain a transcription of virtually everything you've entered on your marriage license application. You must surrender the license to whoever solemnizes your marriage for further completion.
If you're applying for a confidential marriage license, you will also be given an application to acquire a certified copy of your marriage certificate from the issuing county clerk.
California does not impose any residency requirements whatsoever for issuing marriage licenses.
In California, the age of majority (a.k.a. legal adulthood) is 18 years and there is no actual minimum age for marriage.
Age 18 and above
If you're 18 years old or older, you can get married without the consent of a parent or guardian, which assumes you're not disqualified for other reasons.
Age 17 and below
If you're 17 years old or younger, you may only marry with the written consent of at least one parent or guardian and a superior court judge's court order. The written consent must be filed with the clerk of the court.
Even if you're an emancipated minor, you must still request the court's permission.
Court order for minors
If you're below the age of 18, in addition to obtaining consent to marry from a parent or guardian, you must obtain permission from a California court. If you have no parent or guardian capable of granting consent, the court may unilaterally authorize your marriage.
The court may require you to undergo premarital counseling as a condition for obtaining a favorable ruling. You will not be advised by a religious counselor if you so object. There's a fee for counseling; however, the court will factor in your inability to pay.
If the court approves your request to marry, you will be granted a certified court order that must be presented to the county clerk when you submit your application.
Previous marriages and SRDPs
Even though the marriage license application will ask you to document your marital history and former state registered domestic partnerships (SRDP), some counties may want to examine a certified copy of the final judgment of dissolution or annulment.
You must present valid photo identification that shows your name and date of birth, such as a driver's license, state-issued ID card, military ID card, passport, or permanent resident card (a.k.a. green card).
Some counties may want to see a certified copy of your birth certificate, so be prepared for that possibility.
Lack of acceptable ID
If you cannot produce identification that's to the clerk's satisfaction, you can submit one or multiple affidavits from credible witnesses who can verify your identity and age.
You are no longer required to get a blood test in order to receive a California marriage license: the provision was abolished in 1995.
Then Assemblywoman—now Congresswoman—Jackie Speier (D) sponsored the legislation which ended the blood test for marriage license requirement.
When the blood test requirement was in effect, women of childbearing age were tested for Rubella (a.k.a. German measles) and both men and women were tested for syphilis.
There are no waiting periods; you'll receive your marriage license moments after you submit your application. You can marry anytime after issuance.
Your marriage license will expire 90 days after it's been issued. The expiration date will be shown on the license.
60-day expiration reminder
If you were issued a public marriage license that has not been returned to the county recorder—yes, "recorder" not "clerk"—within 60 days of issuance, the recorder will notify you of its looming expiration.
The person who will solemnize your marriage is often referred to as the officiant. California law stipulates who is and who is not authorized to solemnize marriages.
Your marriage may be solemnized by any of the following religious officials, who must be 18 years old or older:
- Any person authorized by any religious denomination
Religious officials and denominations are not required to solemnize any marriage that violates their religious beliefs and such refusal will not affect their tax-exempt status.
Your marriage may be solemnized by any religious society according to the rites and customs of the society as long as you, or your intended spouse, or both are society members.
If you're a member of a religious society or denomination that doesn't designate persons to solemnize marriages, then you and your prospective spouse will be wholly responsible for completing the marriage license at the conclusion of your marriage ceremony.
Your marriage may be solemnized by any of the following California government officials age 18 or above, active or retired unless otherwise specified:
- Judge (including those who have resigned)
- Magistrate (includes only those who have resigned)
- Assistant commissioner of a California court of record (active only)
- Commissioner of civil marriages (a.k.a. county clerk)
- Deputized commissioner of civil marriages (active only)
- Federal justices, judges, and magistrates (needn't be from California):
- U.S. supreme court justice
- U.S. bankruptcy court judge
- U.S. court of appeals judge
- U.S. district court judge
- U.S. tax court judge
- U.S. magistrate
- City, county, or city and county elected officeholders (active or former)
- City clerk of a charter city or general law city (active only)
- California constitutional officers (active and former):
- Lieutenant governor
- Secretary of state
- Attorney general
- State controller
- State treasurer
- Insurance commissioner
- Superintendent of public instruction
- Board of equalization member
- Member of the legislature (active and former members)
- Member of congress (active and former members)
- County-authorized official of a nonprofit religious institute
Elected officials who have been removed from office for committing an offense or having been convicted of an offense are barred from solemnizing marriages.
Update: Effective July 10, 2017, a small change in California solemnization law no longer makes it illegal for judges, city clerks, and elected officials to accept "reasonable" compensation or gratuity for solemnizing a marriage. So, feel free to tip.
One to two witnesses must attend your marriage ceremony and sign your marriage license afterward. Their printed names and mailing addresses must also be applied to the license.
To be clear, you can have as many attending witnesses as you want, but a maximum of two is allowed to sign the license. The person who solemnizes your marriage cannot serve as a witness.
Even though California law doesn't impose a minimum age requirement for a witness, their competency must be to the satisfaction of whoever solemnizes your marriage.
Religious society witnesses
If you're a member of a religious society or denomination that doesn't conduct marriage ceremonies with a designated officiant, you are required to supply two witnesses instead of just one for your religious society ceremony.
Before your marriage ceremony can be performed, you must relinquish your marriage license for inspection to the person who will be solemnizing your marriage: the officiant.
Note: If you're going to have a religious society marriage with no defined solemnizing official, then you and your prospective spouse must both take on the duties of "officiant" when it comes to completing and returning the license.
Completing the license
The person who solemnizes your marriage must complete/certify/endorse the solemnization portion of the marriage license by typing or printing the following:
- Ceremony date (month, day, year)
- Ceremony location (city and county)
- Ceremony witnesses' printed names, mailing addresses, and signatures
- Officiant's printed name, mailing address, and formal position (e.g., minister, pastor, rabbi) and denomination (if a clergyperson)
Returning the license
Your officiant must return the completed marriage license within 10 days after the ceremony. It must be returned in person or postmarked before the date of expiration.
If you have a public marriage license, it must be returned to the county recorder of the same county where you received your license.
If you have a confidential marriage license, it must be returned to the county clerk's office that issued it.
Your officiant is responsible for returning your marriage license for registration—also referred to as recording. After registration the "marriage license" will have a new title: marriage certificate.
A registered marriage license means your marriage is officially recognized by the State of California and certified copies of your marriage certificate can now be purchased.
Public license registration
If you were issued a public marriage license, it should be registered by the county recorder within the same county where you applied for your license.
On at least a monthly basis, the county recorder will forward all original public marriage certificates to the State Registrar of Vital Statistics.
Confidential license registration
If you were issued a confidential marriage license, it should be registered in the same county clerk's office that issued it.
On at least a quarterly basis, the county clerk will transmit copies of the most recent confidential marriage certificates to the State Registrar of Vital Statistics for indexing.
Marriage certificate copy
You can acquire a certified copy of your marriage certificate after it's been registered. The type of marriage license you applied for determines where you can obtain copies.
Public marriage certificate
Certified copies of a public marriage certificate can be purchased from either the county recorder's office that registered the license or the Vital Records office within the California Department of Public Health.
Confidential marriage certificate
Certified copies of a confidential marriage certificate can only be purchased by a party to the marriage from the county clerk's office that issued and registered the license.
Certified copies of confidential marriage certificates cannot be purchased from the State's Vital Records office, even though they do index confidential certificates.
Proof of name change after marriage
If you plan to change your name after marriage with the Social Security Administration, California DMV, passport agency, or other governmental and nongovernmental institutions, you must obtain a certified copy of your marriage certificate to bring about the change.
Be sure to specify your new name preferences on the application.
If you were to marry any of the following members of your family, it would be declared incestuous and void from inception:
- Sibling (half or whole blood)
First cousins allowed
California unconditionally permits marriage between first cousins.
You cannot get married if you have a living spouse. Such a marriage would be considered bigamous until your prior marriage has been legally dissolved through divorce, spouse's death, or annulment.
Spouse believed deceased
A bigamous marriage may avoid being voided if either of the following conditions is met:
- The whereabouts of your prior spouse was unknown for five consecutive years immediately preceding your subsequent marriage.
- At the time you entered into your subsequent marriage, you did not know if your prior spouse was living or you had reason to believe him or her to be deceased.
Although meeting these conditions doesn't guarantee your marriage wouldn't be nullified if contested, it does offer you stronger legal footing upon such a challenge.
Applying by proxy
If you or your prospective spouse, or both, are unable to apply for a marriage license in person before a county clerk, you can send a proxy to apply on your behalf. The permitted proxy and procedure varies based on the reason for the absence.
Although any person is eligible to apply by proxy for good reason, only members of the Armed Forces are allowed to get married by proxy if certain conditions are met.
Absentee serving overseas
If one party to a proposed marriage is unable to attend the application process or solemnization due being a member of the Armed Forces stationed overseas and serving in a conflict or war, he or she can permit an attorney-in-fact to act as a proxy.
The attorney-in-fact must appear alongside the non-absent applicant and submit a signed and notarized power of attorney composed by the missing applicant. In lieu of notarization, two witnesses who are officers in the Armed Forces would suffice.
The power attorney must include the full birth name or court-ordered name of both parties to the marriage and a statement authorizing the attorney-in-fact to procure a marriage license and act as a proxy during solemnization.
The original power of attorney will be attached to the marriage certificate after the marriage has been registered, which would also make it part of the public record.
Note: An attorney-in-fact is just someone who's authorized to conduct certain business matters on behalf of another person: it need not be an actual attorney.
Absent for other sufficient reason
Whoever solemnizes your marriage must present an affidavit to the county clerk providing an adequate explanation for nonappearance (e.g., imprisonment, hospitalization) along with their signature and your and the other applicant's signature.
Although all signatories must sign the affidavit under penalty of perjury, only an absent party is required to have their signature confirmed by a notary public or court.
California does not recognize common-law marriages established in this state or any other.
Validity of outside marriage
If you enter into a lawful marriage outside the State of California, the marriage would be recognized as valid in California even if it could not have legally taken place in California.
You do not and cannot register an out-of-state marriage with the state registrar or local registrar (a.k.a. county recorder); registration is unnecessary anyway.
Finally, choose a county clerk's office
At this point, you should be fully prepared to overcome the marriage licensing procedure. Your next move it to choose a California county clerk's office to apply in.