In Iowa, marriage is a civil contract between two people. Before entering into a marriage contract, you must procure a marriage license. In order to attain a marriage license, you must submit a marriage license application and pay a filing and recording fee.
This document will plainly walk you through the steps of where to go, what to bring, and what to expect, from application day to ceremony day, and beyond
Before we dive into the marriage license process, let's cover a few common terms you'll see bandied about. On occasion, the shorthand version of the following expressions will be used to keep things concise.
- license: marriage license
- application: marriage license application
- certificate: marriage certificate, certificate of marriage
- officiant: person authorized to solemnize a marriage
- recorder: county recorder, county recorder/registrar
- registrar: county registrar, county registrar/recorder
Don't get hung up on any of the above terms (especially recorder/registrar); they'll all be explained when the time comes.
Iowa welcomes all marriage license applicants, be them Iowans, citizens of neighboring states, or visitors from a foreign land. Anyone is eligible to marry in this great state.
Where to go?
In Iowa, marriage licenses are issued by the County Recorder or County Registrar within the County Recorder's office or County Registrar's office. There are 99 such offices across all 99 counties.
These offices can typically be found in the county courthouse or administration building. You don't have to track down any location: use the provided county list, at the bottom of the page, which contains every office therein.
A license issued from any county registrar can be used anywhere in the state, but only in this state.
Recorder or registrar?
So which is it, recorder or registrar? In this state, it's one and the same; the title is different, but it points to the same person who performs the same function.
State law, forms, and documentation are mostly written to reference "registrar" or "registrar of vital statistics," but in reality, virtually all Iowa registrars refer to themselves as "recorders" or even "recorder/registrar." Registrar is a legacy term that hasn't been frequently employed since the late '90's.
Bring one witness
Believe it or not, you have to bring an adult witness with you when you're completing your application. They have to be 18 years old or over. They'll be required to fill out an "affidavit of competent and disinterested person" form, located on the reverse side of your application.
"Disinterested" means they're unbiased. "Competent" means they're capable of entering a civil contract: not your civil/marriage contract, but a civil contract in general.
When your witness signs the affidavit they're declaring that they know you and your prospective spouse, vouch for the accuracy of what you both state in the application, that both of you are unmarried, that there's no legal impediment or prohibition against you marrying, and that you're going to have your marriage ceremony take place somewhere inside Iowa by an authorized officiant. In essence, they're providing a testimonial.
Documents you'll receive
You'll receive a marriage license following the successful submission of your application. Attached to the license will be a blank certificate of marriage form, which is also referred to as a marriage certificate form.
Whoever solemnizes your marriage must fill out the marriage certificate form and then return it to the office that issued it so that it may be recorded. Once your license is recorded, the recorder will automatically issue you a certified copy of your marriage certificate.
So, in summary, you'll get a marriage license one day and a certified copy of your marriage certificate a bit later, after you're married.
Your marriage license application and certificate of marriage will both become public records and available for public inspection.
There are no residency requirements. The application and fees are the same for all applicants, foreign and domestic.
You must bring at least one form of valid, non-expired, government-issued photo ID. It's used to validate your age and identity. Examples of acceptable forms of ID include a driver's license, state-issued ID card, or passport.
You can pick up a blank application from the county recorder or request it be mailed to you. Even though applications are uniform in design, it's a good idea to obtain it from the office you intend to apply in, as they may supplement it with office-specific instructions, such as accepted payment options, a "payable to" designation, and office hours.
You can submit your marriage license application in person or by mail. Both methods have pros and cons.
If you submit your application in person, you must both appear together. This is the approach that most couples choose and prefer, as it allows the recorder to provide a guiding hand during the making of your application.
While mailing in your application is theoretically the more convenient option, it is a more precarious approach. When mailing it in, it's imperative that everything is filled out properly, as you won't have the recorder there to assist you; an accepted method of payment must be included, made out to the proper designee; and you must get your application notarized, so there's still legwork involved.
Keep in mind, the "affidavit of competent and disinterested person" portion of your application must also be notarized, but it doesn't necessarily have to be by the same notary public that notarizes your application.
The recorder won't mail you your license after receiving and processing your application: either you or your prospective spouse must pick it up, in office.
Let's cover a few of the application form fields: what's required, what's not, and the implications of your answers.
Party and gender
The state has designed the application to be gender neutral. Applicants are designated as "Party A" and "Party B"; although, you can optionally choose a more specific title: bride, groom, or spouse.
There's also a separate "gender" field that is optional. The application specifically asks for your "gender" and not "sex"; presumably you can respond with whichever gender you identify with.
Your "legal name" is your current full name (first, middle, and last), including suffix. Do not include or use a nickname. You'll also be asked to specify your surname at birth: for women this is referred to as your maiden name.
Legal name after marriage
If you plan to change your name after marriage, then you must specify your new name on the application. Failure to do so would prevent you from undertaking a marriage-related name change by way of your marriage certificate. Specify your subsequent first, middle, and last name, including suffix.
This is the name you'll sign on your certificate of marriage, following solemnization.
Keep in mind, only middle and last name changes are permitted as a result of marriage; first name changes require petitioning the court.
Place of residence
The application is designed to assume your place of residence is a U.S. address or territory: this is why it only provides spaces for city, state, and county (that's "county" not "country").
If you're a foreigner, you'll have to notify the recorder that your address is incompatible with the form and seek council for how they'd wish you to proceed: leave it blank or finagle your country name into the "state" form field.
Perhaps one day the Department of Health will update the application to accommodate foreign addresses, but considering they amount to a miniscule percentage of Iowa marriages, it's understandably a low priority.
Date of birth
Your date of birth is used to calculate your age; to determine if you're eligible to marry without having to obtain consent from a guardian, parent, or judge; to cross-reference against whichever identification you present; and to help build out the state's vast array of genealogical resources and databases.
Parents' birth names
You'll be asked to provide both your parents' names at birth. For your mother, this would be her maiden name. This field is optional. It's also gender neutral, referencing "Parent A" and "Parent B"; although you can choose a more specific designation: mother, father, or parent.
The "parent" fields are not related to fulfilling any parental consent requirement; that's a separate process that must be entirely completed before you even begin your marriage license application.
Social security number
To ensure confidentiality, your social security number is asked separate from the main application, is for administrative purposes only, and will not to be disclosed as part of the public record.
Your social security number—along with your entire application, license, and marriage certificate—is eventually forwarded to the state registrar of vital statistics by the county recorder. At that point, the state registrar has the authority to pass on your social security number to the state's Child Support Recovery Unit.
Officiant and ceremony date
If you don't know who will officiate/solemnize your marriage or when it will take place, you needn't panic: these are not required fields. The form is merely asking for the "anticipated" ceremony date and officiant name. If you don't know this information, or would prefer not to answer, leave them blank.
Signature and date
When you affix your signature and date, it must be done in the presence of the recorder or notary public. Keep this requirement in mind if you intend to fill out a blank application in advance, either by picking one up in the recorder's office or requesting one by mail.
Protection from abuse
The state requires the following declaration against violence and abuse to appear on every marriage license application, in bold print:
The laws of this state affirm your right to enter into this marriage and at the same time to live within the marriage under the full protection of the laws of this state with regard to violence and abuse. Neither of you is the property of the other. Assault, sexual abuse, and willful injury of a spouse or other family member are violations of the laws of this state and are punishable by the state.
You're not required to mark or acknowledge this statement: it simply exists.
Which of the three age brackets do you fall in? Adults, minors, or ineligibles?
18 and over
If you're eighteen years old, the state considers you a legal adult who's old enough to marry without having to consult your mom, dad, or guardian. Consent's a nonfactor for adults.
16 to 17
Sixteen and seventeen year olds represent the only underage group that can marry in Iowa, under strict conditions. If you're of this age group, there are two hurdles for you to overcome: first is obtaining consent to marry from both of your parents or a guardian, and second is getting approval from a district court judge.
15 and under
If you're fifteen years old or younger, you cannot marry. This is the end of the road for you. There is no workaround, loophole, or higher authority to appeal to. Whether you're emancipated, abandoned, pregnant, or a parent, you are forbidden from marrying until you reach the age of sixteen.
Who grants consent?
Go down the following list, then stop when something applies to you. It's sorted from least likely to most likely.
If you have a legal guardian, that's who grants consent.
Parents dead or missing
If you have no legal guardian and both your parents are dead or their whereabouts are unknown, then a judge of the district court grants consent.
One parent alive
If you have one surviving custodial parent, that's who grants consent. If they happen to be mentally incompetent, then go to court.
Both parents alive
If both your parents are alive and not divorced, you must obtain consent from both of them. If one is mentally incompetent, get consent from the competent one.
If your parents are divorced, then get consent from the parent that has custody of you. If that parent is mentally incompetent, then go to court.
Consent must be granted in writing before you even begin the application process. The official "consent to marriage" form can be picked up at any recorder's office; it's designed by the state, so they're interchangeable statewide.
Whoever's granting consent can do it in person, before the recorder, or with a notary public. The next step is going to court for approval.
Getting court approval
Going to court is the final piece of the underage marriage puzzle.
You'll need to get a hearing scheduled with a district court judge who's in the same judicial district as the county recorder office you intend to apply in. The recorder or district court clerk can assist you in setting this up.
If you're a minor, maybe you need consent to marry and maybe you don't; maybe your parent(s) or guardian is capable of granting consent, but refuse. Whatever your situation, the district court judge makes the final decision.
Consent form done
If you've got a completed consent form in hand, present it to the judge.
If your personal situation is such where consent doesn't apply (e.g., no parents and no guardian), the judge will be the sole decider.
Consent unreasonably refused
If you've got a parent or guardian who's eligible to grant consent, but they refuse, you can throw a Hail Mary pass and try to get a judge to overrule their refusal. The judge will likely want to hear from your parent(s) or guardian to ascertain if their objection is unreasonable. It's a long shot approach, but it's your only option.
Once the consent hearing is over, the judge will decide if it's in your best interest to marry. If your consent to marry request is approved, you'll be issued a written order that directs the recorder to issue you a marriage license. If your request is rejected, then your pursuit of marriage is over, until you're of age.
The pregnancy factor
By the way, being pregnant or having given birth to a child wouldn't necessarily equate to you being prepared for marriage in the judge's eyes. If you are pregnant, any court records documenting that fact will be sealed and only available to parties to the marriage or by court order.
You will be issued your marriage license three business days after you apply for it. This means you'll have to make two trips to the recorder's office: one to submit your application and another to pick up your issued license. Either you or your prospective spouse can return to pick it up.
The following table represents the three business day delay in action.
|Apply on||Issued on|
Note: all recorder offices are closed weekends and certain holidays.
Waiving the three-day wait
If you need to get married before three-day waiting period expires, you can seek a waiver from a district court judge. The judge must be from the same judicial district as the office you applied in. The recorder will prepare the court forms for you and tell you where to go.
When you're in the presence of the judge, you'll have to present a compelling reason why the three-day wait should be waived. If the judge finds there's an emergency or extraordinary circumstance to justify a waiver, they will give you a written order authorizing the recorder to change the valid (or effective) date on the license.
Modification of the three-day wait is referred to as "validating the license," which typically orders your license to be effective immediately, but there's a small likelihood it could be post-dated anytime within the three-day range.
When you have the judge's order in hand, return to the recorder and present them the order. Once you pay the mandatory $5.00 fee, the recorder will "validate" or change the waiting period delay to whatever the judge specified.
If you can't afford to pay the $5.00 fee, be sure to tell the judge that before the order is issued so that an additional instruction can be directed to the recorder to put aside the fee.
Six month reserve
If you don't return to pick up your license from the recorder's office within six months of applying, it will be void. You will not be granted a refund for failure to pick up a voided license.
Iowa marriage licenses don't expire once they're issued. This is an oddity, as most other states force their licenses to expire after a certain period of time.
The only thing that matters about your previous marriages is that they've been disbanded. You are not required to provide proof of your prior marriage ending by way of a divorce decree or death certificate.
The following marriages are prohibited by the state and would be void if constituted.
As in most states, Iowa outlaws marriage between the following blood relations:
- First cousin
Ban is blood-related
Iowa's family member marriage ban is based on consanguinity, or blood relations; it makes no mention of relationships based on adoption. Presumably, this omission would not rule out marriage between stepsiblings, or first cousins related through adoption instead of blood.
If you have a living husband or wife, then you cannot marry until that marriage has been fully dissolved. Legal separation is not considered a form of dissolution; your existing marriage must be finalized in divorce.
If you enter into a bigamous relationship, it is subject to voiding, if discovered. If it is found it out, the bigamous marriage can be legally salvaged and deemed valid if you and your bigamous spouse have cohabitated since your marriage, and your previous spouse has died or the previous marriage has finally been dissolved after the fact.
Ward lacking capacity
If you are a ward who has been deemed incompetent or lacking capacity by a court of valid jurisdiction to enter a marriage contract, then you cannot marry.
The ward of a guardian is typically thought to be a minor, but there are adults (well over the age of 18 or 21) who continue to have court-appointed guardians oversee their interests.
Solemnization is the act of presiding over one's marriage. This is also referred to as "officiating" a marriage.
Who may solemnize?
In short, you can be married by a judge, cleric, or yourself.
You can be married by a judge of the district court, court of appeals, or supreme court; a district associate or associate juvenile judge; or a judicial magistrate.
You can also be married by any religious official who's been ordained or authorized to perform solemnizations on behalf of any religious institution, organization, or society.
You don't have to employ the services of a judge or cleric to solemnize your marriage: you can do it yourself: it's called self-solemnization. If you go this route, you'll be responsible for completing and returning your completed marriage license and certificate.
You must have two adult witnesses attend your ceremony. They must be competent, meaning they understand and appreciate the significance of what they're witnessing.
If you'd prefer to be married in a civil ceremony, you'll have to make the arrangements yourself. The recorder can point you in the right direction, but you'll have to request the judge and pay the separate ceremony fee.
You can request your ceremony be held in the judge's chambers or open court. Be sure to bring your two witnesses. There will be a fee charged, but it won't go in the judge's pocket; judges only get paid directly for performing solemnizations that take place outside regular judicial hours.
Completing the certificate
Once vows have been exchanged and the ceremony has concluded, the certificate of marriage portion of the marriage license must be legibly filled out in black ink.
This is a simple process of documenting when and where the marriage was conducted; who performed the ceremony; you and your spouse's signatures, using the legal name after marriage you chose on the application; and witnesses' names and signatures. Once that's done, the license and certificate is ready to be returned to the recorder.
Returning the certificate
Your completed certificate of marriage must be returned to the county recorder that issued it no later than 15 days following the marriage ceremony so that it may be recorded. Failure to do so would result in a $50.00 fine.
Once your certificate of marriage has been returned to the county recorder, it will be registered and indexed in a marriage record book kept for that purpose. The original certificate will be forwarded to the state registrar no later than the tenth of the following month.
It's worth reiterating a point made earlier in the documents you'll receive section: "marriage certificate" and "certificate of marriage" are synonyms that refer to the same document, so don't get confused if you hear one phrase over the other.
Automatic certified copy
The county recorder will automatically mail you out a certified copy of your certificate of marriage after it's been recorded. The marriage certificate is what you'll use to change your name, if you so choose.
If you need this certified copy quickly, then urge your officiant to return the completed certificate to the registrar as soon as possible, instead of waiting until the end of the permitted 15 days.
Ordering extra certified copies
Although the state registrar is forwarded your original certificate of marriage while the county recorder maintains a copy, bona fide certified copies can be ordered from either office for $4.00. You can order spare copies at the same time you apply for your license.
You are not permitted to get married by proxy. A proxy marriage is used when you or your prospective spouse can't attend the marriage ceremony, so you ask an intermediary to take the place of the missing person; this person serves as the proxy.
Proxy marriage is often used for prisoners, or members of the armed forces who are on active military duty outside the state or country.
If you get married in another state, territory, or foreign country your marriage will be recognized as valid in Iowa as long as it doesn't violate any of the state's age requirement or prohibited marriage provisions.