How to Get a Marriage License in California and Plan Your CA Wedding
Whether you're planning an elaborate wedding filled with jaw-dropping vendors and a high guest count or a simple beach marriage ceremony, you'll need to get a California marriage license if you're getting married in the State of California.
We've done the research for you and tapped into the local expert knowledge of marriage officiants to walk through the steps you need to take to get married in California—from applying for a California marriage license to securing a certified copy of the marriage record (a.k.a. a marriage certificate). We'll answer FAQs including the types of marriage licenses in California, the legal requirements, the application process and the cost of a California marriage license so you'll know what to expect and the documents to gather in order to get all your legal paperwork in order well before the wedding day. We've also got local expert planning tips to make your California wedding experience the best it can be.
In this article:
Types of California Marriage Licenses
Before you apply, the first step is knowing that there are two different options: a public marriage license and a confidential marriage license. According to Bethel Nathan, an ordained officiant at Ceremonies by Bethel in San Diego, there are a few key differences between the two.
Public Marriage License
"A public marriage license is what couples traditionally apply for because there are no restrictions on where the couple lives and does not require that the couple live together before marriage," she explains. A public marriage license is valid for 90 days before it expires, meaning the marriage ceremony must take place within that time period. It requires the signature of at least one witness (but has space for two) in addition to the couple's and officiant's signatures.
After the ceremony, the signed document becomes a legal state contract that establishes the rights and obligations between the couple, their children, and other family members held by The California Department of Public Health Vital Records Office. In California, these marriage records are considered public records because of the legal consequences that may arise among the parties. "Once the marriage license has been registered in the county where the license was purchased, and is a public record, anyone can request an informational copy—the couple and specified relatives can order a certified copy from the County Clerk-Recorder's Office," she adds.
Confidential Marriage License
A confidential marriage license becomes a confidential record; therefore, the only people able to obtain information about it or order a certified copy are the couple (except by special court order). Oftentimes, celebrities or couples that elope and want to keep their marriage private will choose this option. The couple must be living together prior to the marriage in order to apply for one and it will be valid for 90 days (i.e. the marriage ceremony must take place within that time frame). No witnesses are required to sign a confidential license other than the officiant. It can be issued either by the County Clerk's office or a special notary who has been authorized by the county.
"And if a couple plan to obtain a confidential marriage license, they would need to state that they live together, but no proof is required," adds Alan Katz, Presiding Officiant at Great Officiants.
How to Get a Marriage License in California
In order to get legally married in the state of California, you need to obtain a marriage license from the County Clerk's office before your marriage ceremony. To be clear, a marriage license is only a permit to get married and you are not married until a ceremony is performed by an authorized person and the marriage is registered.
Here's everything you need to know to go through the process of getting a California marriage license.
What are the legal requirements to get married in California?
The marriage license application is an affidavit, and when you and your fianceé(e) sign it, you are making a sworn statement that there are no legal impediments to the marriage (as outlined below). In order for the marriage license to be valid, it must be used within 90 days and signed by a proper officiant.
The legal requirements to get married in California are as follows:
- Each prospective spouse must be 18 years of age or older to wed. Marriage licenses can not be given to those who are under the age of 17 or blood relatives. If, however, a 17-year-old wanted to get married in California, they could do so with written consent from one parent or legal guardian as well as written approval of a Superior Court Judge.
- You cannot be currently married (meaning divorces, annulments and dissolutions of marriage must already be finalized). "If either party was married in the last two years, he or she also needs to provide proof of dissolution," says Katz.
- You do not need to be a United States or California resident in order to purchase a California marriage license or to get married in California. However, some counties have local guidelines such as Napa County, that specify they will only issue a marriage license to couples in which one party is a Napa County resident, so it's important to check the County Clerk's website.
- The state marriage law does not require a blood test.
- "The only legal requirements when presenting the marriage license application is that each party needs to bring a valid government photo identification, like a driver's license, and that both people must be present together when applying for the license," explains Renee Dalo of Moxie Bright Events in Los Angeles.
- However, Nathan noted that although typically both parties need to appear in person at the county clerk, there have been new virtual marriage services introduced since the Covid-19 pandemic with some counties offering virtual appointments and ceremonies.
Is there a waiting period to get married in California?
There is no waiting period to get married in California. Once a California marriage license is issued, you can get married immediately or anytime after but it is only valid for 90 days.
What do you need to get a marriage license in California?
First, you need to know if you want to get a standard public marriage license or a confidential marriage license.
Secondly, The Name Equality Act allows the couple to change their middle or last name(s) at the time they are applying for their marriage license. So you should decide if you plan to change your name as this will take effect upon signing the marriage license and save you from going through an additional step after getting married.
Then you will need to fill out the marriage license application, provide the information requested, bring your photo identification, and pay a fee for the license.
On the California marriage license application, you need to provide:
- Your legal name, place/date of birth (for both of you)
- The same information for both sets of parents
- The new name you or your spouse will take after marriage (if either or both of you are changing your last names). You'll need to follow this name change process to change your name
- Proof of divorce and the divorce date, or if widowed, your former spouse's death certificate, if either of you has had a previous marriage as neither party can be legally married at the time of license issue.
Bring proper forms of identification including proof of age and photo ID, such as:
- Birth certificate
- Driver License or Learner Permit with photograph (from the United States of America or any of its territories)
- Non-Driver Identification Card with photograph (from the United States of America or any of its territories)
- Active United States Military Identification Card
- United States Certificate of Naturalization (good for 10 years after date of issue)
- United States Permanent Resident Card
- United States Employment Authorization Card
How much does a marriage license cost in California?
The marriage license fee varies based on what county is issuing it and can range from around $60-$110. "In the Southern California region where I officiate weddings most often, San Diego charges $70 for a public license and $89 for a confidential, Orange County charges $61 and $66 respectively, Los Angeles County charges $91 and $85 respectively, and Riverside County charges $100 and $110 respectively," explained Nathan.
Forms of payment for a marriage license can vary by county, so check with your county clerk to see if you can pay with a credit card, debit card, cash or money order.
How long does it take to get a marriage license in California?
When do you apply for a marriage license in California? Issuance of the license itself takes just minutes, however, ideally, you should plan ahead to make an appointment. Dalo advises couples, "Once you hit the 90-day mark prior to your wedding date, you should apply and make an appointment for the in-person meeting."
On the appointment date, Nathan suggests that you allocate 30-45 minutes for your appointment (or once you have started the process with a county clerk after waiting in line if doing a walk-in). "And it's faster if you've already completed the application ahead of time, which is now required by certain counties for the appointment to be set," she said. "Then, if you have that application completed, plus the required photo identification and payment ready, you will walk out with your license and be ready to be married immediately or at any point within the next 90 days."
Who signs the California marriage license?
"in addition to the couple's signatures, a public marriage license requires one witness, but there is space for two to sign the license, in addition to the officiant, of course, while a confidential marriage license needs only the officiant's signature and there is no space for witnesses," she explains.
Where do you get a marriage license in California?
To get a marriage license in California, you will need to schedule an in-person appointment (or virtual meeting offered in some counties) at a County Clerk's Office for you and your future spouse to submit your application. Most counties prefer (or require) that you download the marriage license application online so that you can complete it before arriving for your appointment.
We've put together this alphabetical list of California County Clerk Office websites with links to pages outlining their marriage services information (i.e. marriage license applications, marriage certificates, civil ceremonies, Commission for a Day programs (where available), etc.).
Alameda County • Alpine County • Amador County • Butte County • Calaveras County • Colusa County • Contra Costa County • Del Norte County • El Dorado County • Fresno County • Glenn County • Humboldt County • Imperial County • Inyo County • Kern County • Kings County • Lake County • Lassen County • Los Angeles County • Madera County • Marin County • Mariposa County • Mendocino County • Merced County • Modoc County • Mono County • Monterey County • Napa County • Nevada County • Orange County • Placer County • Plumas County • Riverside County • Sacramento County • San Benito County • San Bernardino County • San Diego County • San Francisco City & County • San Joaquin County • San Luis Obispo County • San Mateo County • Santa Barbara County • Santa Clara County • Santa Cruz County • Shasta County • Sierra County • Siskiyou County • Solano County • Sonoma County • Stanislaus County • Sutter County • Tehama County • Trinity County • Tulare County • Tuolumne County • Ventura County • Yolo County • Yuba County
Can you apply for a California marriage license online?
Some counties, like San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles county, allow you to apply online. However, some counties still require you to bring in an application in person for the marriage license to be issued by a county clerk. "All the information on what is needed to obtain a marriage license in the various counties is on their websites," explains Katz.
Who can perform a marriage ceremony in California?
The marriage ceremony must be performed by an authorized person defined in CA Family Code Section 400, which includes a civil marriage commissioner, minister, priest or rabbi of any religious denomination, United States acting or retired judge or magistrate and any legislator or constitutional officer representing a district of California.
If you love the idea of having a friend or family member conduct the ceremony, in certain counties they can become a Deputy Commissioner for a Day whereby they can apply to be deputized to perform one civil marriage ceremony. If you'd like to go this route, they should apply at least three weeks beforehand.
However, Katz also advises against choosing a non-professional or a friend or family member who is not a professional as it can "be a recipe for disaster" in his experience. "Probably one of the best places to find quality vendors is on The Knot and WeddingWire platforms," he added. "The most important thing is to find the person with the most and best reviews. This tells the story."
Where can a marriage ceremony be held in California?
A marriage commissioner can conduct a civil marriage ceremony at City Hall or a County Clerk's Office. Otherwise, it's considered a private ceremony and can be held at a place of worship, an event space or whatever location you desire (e.g. garden, beach, private home, etc.). Regardless of which county you get your marriage license, the wedding ceremony can take place anywhere within the State of California.
How to Get a Marriage Certificate in California
A certified copy of your marriage certificate, which is proof of your legal marriage, can be purchased from the county clerk that issued the license after they process the completed and signed license (which happens after the wedding). "Each county has different options for purchasing certified copies of the marriage certificate – via mail, in-person, and online," explained Nathan.
"However, keep in mind that when you first receive your marriage certificate, it's in a manila envelope with several papers in it. You receive a legal copy and then an additional piece that says 'copy' on it, the latter you want to hold onto for safekeeping," explains Dalo. "When you send in the legal one, there is a form that goes with it, allowing you to order additional copies on the spot," she added. "I always suggest getting 4-5 copies of the completed license because you need it for many things including taxes, insurance, banking, mortgage applications, a name change, etc."
What's considered a common law marriage in California?
California does not have common law marriage. Instead, you have to be legally married to be considered married in California.
"It seems that couples who were considered common-law spouses in another state before moving to California might be treated similarly when going through a 'divorce' in California, but there is no common law marriage in California," said Nathan.
However, she noted that there is another legal structure that exists in California and might be where some people get confused: a California domestic partnership. She explained that this is a legal relationship, analogous to marriage, created in 1999 to extend the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. This was created since same-sex couples weren't able to be legally married in California at that time and were also available for opposite-sex couples over the age of 62. "It was extended to all opposite-sex couples as of January 1, 2020. However, while this provides all benefits afforded to marriage within California, it is not recognized by the federal government," she said. "Therefore, it is not considered married for any federal benefits or rights."
How to Plan a California Wedding
One of the best things about getting married in California according to Nathan is all of the options for styles of weddings within the state. Whether you prefer a beach, mountain, desert, winery, luxury, or rustic, California can not only accommodate that vision but pull it off better than imagined with the help of experienced vendors.
The Different Cities and Areas to Consider for a California Wedding
As Dalo explained, "there's an embarrassment of riches here in California" when it comes to ideal locations for a memorable wedding. She personally loves Palm Springs because it feels like a destination, even though it's only two hours away from LAX. "Any time an out-of-state couple is considering California, my first inclination is to recommend Palm Springs," she said. "You may not get the ocean views, but it's very peaceful and feels like you're in a far-flung destination."
San Diego is also a great destination for both couples and guests alike, especially Casa Del Mar, where you're still in California but feel as though you're in Mexico. "You can't go wrong with San Francisco or Los Angeles for a beautiful city wedding, either," she added. "I feel like there is no wrong answer when selecting an area of California for your wedding. We literally have every option here—it just depends on the kind of wedding you want to have."
What to Look For in a California Wedding Venue
One of the most important things to know, according to Margaux Fraise of Harmony Creative Studio in Los Angeles, is that California is a very litigious state. "You will see increased legalities, insurance requirements, and things like that in your venue contract," she said. "Make sure that you actually read your contract and understand what you are agreeing to because here in California, you're going to find more legal jargon that you're going to have to follow."
But when it comes to the California wedding venue itself, Dalo recommends finding a spot with both indoor and outdoor space for a uniquely California experience. "We do have beautiful weather paired with unique geography, so an entirely indoor venue would feel off base," she said. "I'm personally a big architecture nerd, so I will always suggest spaces unique to the region—such as spaces boasting Spanish architecture or perhaps a property featuring an Arts and Crafts design."
How to Find California Wedding Vendors
One of the nice things about California is that there are a wealth of vendors here including some of the best in the country, according to Dalo. But she notes that it's not so much about finding amazing people because talented people are everywhere as much as it is about finding the right people for you. You need to know what you want of your vendors—be it, the kind of style of photography you like, the band you want, or a wedding planner you think you'll get along well with. "'Good' is subjective, so what we want is uniquely right for you," she explained. "Do your due diligence by taking time to read people's websites, visit their social media and read reviews. Take time to get to know the vendors by meeting with them in person or on Zoom."
The best possible way to start your search for California wedding vendors is to narrow it down more specifically by city or region, explained Fraise. "Because if you put in 'California wedding planner,' you're going to get everyone from Fresno to the Central Valley to San Diego, and those are not close to one another," she said. "If you know you're getting married in Temecula wine country—then only search 'Temecula wedding planner,' etc ... Getting specific about the cities and the regions is a great way to hone in on, and find, the best vendors for you."
The Best Times of Year to Have a California Wedding for Good Weather
"We're blessed here in California, as we have great weather pretty much year-round," said Fraise.
However, in her experience it is rainier in the early spring, so March and early April are where you're going to find the most instances of having to utilize a rain plan here in California. "I would say late spring to late April, May, June is the perfect time," she added.
It's also important to remember that California is very hot in August, September, and October. "I know that October is the most popular month for weddings in the US, and that's because, in most regions, it's very temperate fall weather," she said. "Here in California, October has been the hottest month of the year for several years running, as the weather patterns shift. If you want real fall weather in California, you need to consider November instead."