Understanding the legalities of this important union

No one likes to think of marriage as a contract or legal procedure—we prefer to think of it in terms of love and romance and happily-ever-after.

The fact of the matter is, though, that marriage is a legal institution, so it's important to understand the rights and obligations of this union, as well as the papers and procedures required to enter it.

Marriage Licenses

Before you can get married, you must apply for a marriage license from the county clerk or clerk of the court. The application process and requirements differ from state to state, but usually you are required to complete an application form, submit supporting documentation (such as proof of identity, proof of age or proof that any previous marriages have been terminated) and pay a fee.

Some states require a waiting period between obtaining a license and actually getting married, so make sure to account for this in your plans.

Marriage Certificates

At or immediately after the marriage ceremony, the officiant will create a record of the marriage, which is completed on the same form as the marriage license. Some states require that this record be signed by witnesses, and some states also provide a section to indicate a name change. If such a section is not provided, the marriage certificate can be used as proof of marriage when requesting a name change later.

Marriage Visas

They say that true love knows no bounds, and in today's global culture, that may literally be the case. With many people traveling and living abroad, not to mention communicating internationally via the Internet, it's little surprise that some individuals find themselves engaged to a non-citizen.

Immigration marriages require a lot of extra paperwork and planning. If you intend to marry a non-citizen in the U.S., you will need to obtain a fiancée visa. If you intend to marry a non-citizen outside of the U.S. but then bring him or her to the U.S. to live, you will need an immigrant visa. If you are already married to a non-citizen who is either not currently in the U.S. or did not enter the U.S. on a fiancée visa, you will have to apply for an immigrant visa. However, if your spouse is already in the U.S. and entered on a fiancée visa, you can apply to have him or her adjusted to permanent status, otherwise known as a green card by marriage.

Common-Law Marriages

Common-law marriages occur when a couple is granted the status and / or rights of a married couple even though no legally recognized ceremony has been performed. Although cohabitation is often the main marker of a common-law marriage, living together in itself does not constitute such a union. Generally, the "spouses" must also consider themselves to be married and act accordingly, and in most states, they must also fulfill the other requirements for a legally binding marriage (for example, be of legal age, not be legally married to anyone else, be of sound mind, etc.).

As with marriage and divorce laws, the laws governing common-law marriages vary from state to state.