Many people do not realize that marriage is a contract like any other, and once you enter into it, the law generally expects you to fulfill your end of the bargain. This means that married people are entitled to share in many of the rights of their partner, such as property, income, and certain benefits. And like normal contracts, there are rules about how marriages can be formed, who can enter into them, and how they can be terminated. In both instances, for example, both parties must have the legal capacity to enter into the arrangement, and they must do so willingly.

Each state has its own requirements for the creation of a valid marriage. Some states allow for informal, or “common law” marriages, which do not require a formal marriage ceremony, but rather are created on their own when two people live together and otherwise hold themselves out to be a married couple. Most states, however, require some sort of formal ceremony that is overseen by a judge, clergy member, or other authorized official in order to consider a marriage valid and legally binding. Although each jurisdiction has its own rules, generally the prerequisites to a valid marriage are:

  • Mutual intent to marry
  • Competence to consent (the ability to understand the nature and responsibility of marriage)
  • A license issued by the local court
  • Performance of a ceremony formalizing the arrangement
  • Recording of the marriage license

Marriages are also contractual in the sense that the states have the power to regulate the types of marriages that are allowed. For public policy reasons, certain types of marriages are barred, such as marriages between blood relatives, and same sex marriages. In addition, many states require parental consent before allowing unemancipated minors to lawfully marry. In most states, there is also a statutory waiting period (often three days after the marriage license is recorded) before the marriage becomes legally effective. This is to allow individuals who rushed into marriage to back out without having to go through the divorce process.

If you are concerned about the validity of your marriage, it is important to seek out the local rules of the particular jurisdiction you were married in. If your marriage satisfied those local rules, then the Constitution requires that all other states acknowledge its validity as well.