No License to Wed

By Published On: January 7, 2019

Weddings come in all shapes and sizes.  However, no matter who you are, or where you wed, nearly all couples have one thing in common as they approach their wedding day: obtaining a marriage license.

In the District of Columbia, marriage licenses are issued by the Marriage Bureau which is part of the District of Columbia’s court system.  The District’s court system is federally funded and thus certain services/functions, including the Marriage Bureau, are impacted by the federal government shut down.

So, if you have plans for an upcoming wedding, what do you do if the Marriage Bureau is closed and you cannot obtain a marriage license?  Although a ceremonial marriage with a license is preferred because it provides unequivocal proof that two parties (heterosexual couples and same-sex couples) are married, couples have other options if they do not want to postpone their nuptials:

Establish a Common Law Marriage.  A couple can proceed with a wedding without a license and establish a common law marriage in the District of Columbia.  The elements of a common law marriage in the District of Columbia are: (i) cohabitation as husband and wife, following (ii) an express mutual agreement, which must be in words of the present tense.  Mesa v. United States, 875, A.2d 79, 83 (D.C. 2005).  In this instance, the couple might explicitly state (or better still, put in writing) that they agree to be husband and wife, such as Jesse, I agree to be your wife,” and “Susan, I agree to be your husband.”  Under the law in the District of Columbia, a marriage is entitled to the same legal protections whether the couple is married in a ceremony with all the appropriate licenses or by common law, provided the elements above are met.

Then, once the Marriage Bureau reopens either have a “ceremonial” marriage at the courthouse or elsewhere.  Couples entering into a common law marriage should be mindful that common law marriages can be difficult to prove if there is a dispute in the future (e.g. estate issues, authority to make medical decisions or rights incident to divorce).  It may also be more challenging to accomplish simple tasks – such as changing a last name on legal and personal documents or getting added to a spouse’s health insurance plan – without having a certified copy of a marriage certificate in hand.  Thus, while not strictly necessary, it is prudent for a couple to obtain a marriage license to make it “official” once the Marriage Bureau reopens.

The DC government is aware that this is a problem.  The D.C. Office of the Mayor is planning to submit emergency legislation, the “Let Our Vows Endure Emergency Amendment Act of 2019,” (“L.O.V.E. Act”) authorizing the Mayor’s office to temporarily issue marriage licenses while the Marriage Bureau is closed because of the federal government shutdown. Assuming the L.O.V.E. Act is passed, couples will be able to obtain marriage licenses without waiting for the Marriage Bureau to reopen.


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