Weddings, Marriages, & The Law – Part I


For those of you who don’t know me, I am a lawyer in real life. (Looking for a job, I should mention!) I thought it would be interesting to talk about the different aspects of weddings & the law: what it means to be married and what legal issues arise with planning a wedding (ie prenuptial agreements and contracts with vendors).  There’s a lot here, so I’m going to break this into a few posts.

First, as a lawyer, I have to include a disclaimer. The following should not be considered legal advice. This is only legal information; if you need legal advice that is relevant to your own situation, you should talk to a lawyer. Okay? Okay. 

Second, I also disclaim any agreement with links that I’ve included. Most of them have legal information; some also contain an opinion. I don’t (and The Wedding Lens does not) agree or disagree with those statements or opinions.  I link to them for informational purposes only.

Legal Marriages

In most states, being married means that you have a marriage license, issued by the state or county in which you are getting married. Your marriage is subject to the laws of the state in which you get married.  What difference does that make?

Well, each state has different laws that apply to you upon marriage. Most of those laws have to do with estate planning, who gets what when you die, power of attorney, community property, and (sorry!) divorce.  Eg. We used to joke that you shouldn’t get married in New York if you ever expect to get divorced. NY has very strict divorce laws!

So if you get married in California, for example, the law presumes that all property acquired during marriage is community property.  That means that all of your earnings become community property and your bank account (the one with JUST your name on it) also becomes community property as soon as you deposit your first paycheck post-marriage.  Note: There are exceptions to the community property rule and the states that have community property laws are different!

If you don’t like what the law does – with community property, with who gets your property when you die, with anything – you can change it! How? Prenuptial agreements and wills! You can pretty much ensure that you can do whatever you want with your money and property, as long as you write it down (which is where I would advise you to talk to a lawyer to make sure you meet your state’s requirements for prenups and wills).

Common Law Marriages

Some states recognize common law marriages if you live together for a certain length of time. The states that recognize common law marriages may have differing requirements. Check with your state!

Religious Marriages

Religious marriages have NO impact on legal marriages. If you get married in a church, but you do not get a state license, you are not considered legally married.

Other States

I should mention that while all states recognize the marriages of opposite-gender couples, regardless of where the marriage takes place, this is not so for same-gender couples. So if a same-gender couple gets married in Massachusetts, another state does not have to recognize that marriage and the couples’ property rights (for example) may not change – even if they would with an opposite-gender couple. In fact, for US census purposes, same-gender married couples will not be counted as married. New York, however, does not itself allow same-gender marriages, but it DOES recognize those same-gender marriages performed in other states.

Again – this isn’t legal advice, just information.  It’s accurate to the best of my knowledge and understanding, but talk to a lawyer if you need advice on any of these topics. Stay tuned for Weddings, Marriages, & the Law – Part II!

~ Natasha