If you want to get married, but don’t want to deal with the astronomical cost and hassle of coordinating a traditional wedding, a courthouse wedding is a great option. Also called a civil wedding or civil ceremony, a courthouse wedding still requires some upfront planning. The specifics will vary based on where your ceremony is held, but here are a few key points to keep in mind — plus insider tips to help your big day run as smoothly as possible.
What to know about courthouse weddings
A courthouse wedding is a nonreligious ceremony that allows you to legally marry your partner. Unlike a religious ceremony, courthouse weddings are presided over by a legal official, such as a judge or court clerk.
Here are some quick facts to know about the marriage certificate:
- To obtain lawful U.S. residency, you’ll need a marriage certificate to show that you were legally married.
- Your marriage certificate must be issued by a legitimate government agency, like your local county clerk’s office.
- A marriage license isn’t the same as a certificate. A marriage license is a legal document you and your partner have to obtain before your ceremony. Think of it as the application to get married.
- After the wedding ceremony, you and your partner sign the license, and your officiant returns it to the county. Then, you receive the marriage certificate.
So, what does the planning phase actually look like? Here’s what to expect with your courthouse wedding.
5 steps to plan a courthouse wedding
1. Choose your location
To keep things simple, some people prefer to get married in the same town in which they live. But if your heart is set on getting married in another city, you have options.
You can get married almost anywhere in the United States, but the requirements will vary. For instance, some states require that you apply for your marriage license in the same town where you plan on getting married. Plan on researching local regulations once you choose a location. (You can usually find this information by looking up the local city/county clerk’s office.)
And even though we’re talking about courthouse weddings, you may or may not get married in an actual courthouse. You’ll usually apply for your marriage license at city hall or a similar local government office. But your ceremony may be held anywhere from a courthouse to a civil ceremony at a Las Vegas wedding chapel. It all depends on what the city offers and what you prefer.
2. Apply for your marriage license
You’ve picked your location. You’ve researched your city’s requirements. Now, it’s time to apply for your marriage license. Again, specific requirements will vary by state — but generally, here’s what both you and your partner will need:
- A valid form of government-issued picture ID, such as a driver’s license, naturalization certificate, or passport
- If either party has been divorced: A copy of the final dissolution (also known as divorce papers)
- Payment for your marriage license (prices can vary)
Note that most marriage licenses have an expiration date — as short as 30 days and as long as 90. That means you need to schedule your ceremony so it takes place before the marriage license expires.
Additionally, some states have a waiting period between when you receive your marriage license and when you can actually get married. That waiting period can take anywhere from 24 hours (Illinois and New York) to 6 days (Wisconsin). Take these factors into consideration when you schedule your wedding date.
3. Gather all your essentials
Before the date of your wedding ceremony, put together a packet that contains all of your necessary paperwork. This should include your marriage license and forms of identification for both you and your partner, plus payment for the marriage ceremony if you haven’t already paid.
Here’s your final must-have: a witness over the age of 18. Some courthouses only need one witness, while others will require two — one each for you and your future spouse.
4. Plan your day
Now that you have your date and your paperwork squared away, it’s time to actually plan your ceremony. This is the fun part! There are plenty of ways to personalize your day, even without a traditional ceremony.
Think about the following as you plan your wedding day:
- Attire: You can be as formal or as casual as you want, or somewhere in between.
- Guests: Guest capacity will vary depending on the courthouse. Some places allow only a handful of guests, while others may be a bit higher. Heads up: Most courthouse wedding ceremonies occur Monday through Friday during business hours. Confirm your witnesses will be available ahead of time.
- Photography: Double-check with the courthouse whether you can take photos or video during the ceremony.
5. Figure out how you want to celebrate
With so much preparation, it might feel surprising to know that a courthouse wedding ceremony is over pretty quickly. When all is said and done, you’re usually in and out in less than 20 minutes.
That’s why it’s just as important to plan what you’re going to do after the ceremony. You might want to jet off to your honeymoon destination ASAP, enjoy a quiet reception with your loved ones, or have a larger party with your family and friends. There isn’t one “right” way to celebrate— do what brings you and your partner joy. It’s your wedding day, after all!