I love photographing elopements. The non-traditional wedding gives couples a great deal of freedom over their day, breaking free from traditions that don’t suit them. But it can be tricky to organize an elopement if you don’t fully understand the legal requirements of marriage in the USA.
If you’ve got your heart set on an elopement, rather than a large traditional wedding, you may be concerned about whether or not it is legal. An elopement feels so different to the traditional grand spectacle that we’re used to seeing on the TV and in magazines that many people wonder if it’s all above board.
The short answer is yes, an elopement is legal and your marriage will be recognized across all 50 states. But there may be some caveats. You’ll need to follow the laws and regulations of the state you choose to get married in. Don’t worry, I’ve summarized the rules for all states so make sure you check that out.
In most places, the regulations are relaxed enough that you don’t have to worry too much. But even if you have your heart on a particular ceremony and it doesn’t align with state law, we can work around that to give you the special day of your dreams as well as having a legally recognized marriage. I help couples to do this all the time!
This guide will help you understand what legalities you need to consider when planning your elopement to make sure that your marriage will be valid and recognized.
What Does Eloping Mean
Historically, to elope meant “run away,” or to “escape.” It was usually a secret wedding, carried out when the bride and groom were unable to hold a traditional wedding ceremony.
Nowadays, an elopement is usually considered a non-traditional wedding, more intimate and with fewer guests than a traditional wedding ceremony. It is an intentional, intimate experience where the focus is on the couple rather than any grand spectacle.
Why do People Elope?
Couples choosing to elope often cite lower costs as one of the primary reasons for an elopement. The fact is, a wedding day is an expensive commitment and most of those costs go towards other people’s enjoyment: receptions, DJs / bands, catering etc.
Couples also get much more control over their wedding day without the constraints of a traditional ceremony. Not everyone wants a big wedding! Sometimes, you just want to be with your absolute closest family and friends. Or maybe just the two of you.
The old stigma of eloping is wearing off, and nowadays it’s not shameful to elope: it’s something to celebrate. It’s your way of telling the world, “this is who we are.”
Is An Elopement the Same as a Small Wedding?
Elopements and intimate weddings share some similarities. They are both characterized by their smaller, less grandiose ceremonies when compared to a traditional wedding ceremony.
However, a small wedding is more like a traditional wedding than an elopement. The ceremony itself, the choice of venue and the number of guests more closely resembles a wedding than an elopement. When couples elope, they tend to marry in a more adventurous location, and with the minimum number of guests present.
This intimate wedding I photographed in 2022 may give you an idea of what a small wedding ceremony can look like.
Is Elopement Legal?
Your elopement will be considered a legal marriage if you’ve followed the rules for marriages in that state.
Many couples wonder whether their ceremony will be recognized as a legal marriage, simply because it feels so different to what a wedding is normally like. But being unique is the whole point of an elopement!
However, before you go off to arrange your ceremony, it’s not quite as simple as hopping on a plane somewhere and saying, “I do.” You need to make sure that you have checked out the requirements for the state you are in (or the state you are intending to marry in). This is crucial to ensuring that your marriage will be valid and recognized.
For example, some states require one witness, others require two witnesses, while others don’t require any at all. You should contact a local official to check their requirements for wedding licenses. This way, you can ensure that you plan ahead and aren’t met with any unexpected surprises.
Can I Self-Solemnize My Marriage?
For those who’d like the smallest of ceremonies, you may be able to self-solemnize.
Self solemnization, or a self-uniting marriage, is performed without the need for a third party officiant. In other words, the couple can be legally married by each other. This type of ceremony is ideal for those who want to keep their numbers down to the absolute minimum.
In other states, it is possible to marry “in accordance with the customs of any religious society,” which opens up the possibility of holding a “Quaker wedding,” as the Quakers do not require marriages to be performed by a third party officiant. Again, check out the states guide at the bottom of this page and it will give you all the information that you need.
Where is it Easiest to Self-Solemnize?
Do I Need Witnesses for My Wedding?
Witnesses play an essential role in a marriage ceremony. Whilst it’s often considered a ceremonial honor to be a witness, a role reserved for someone close to the bride or groom, they do also play a legal role.
A witness is required to ensure that both parties consent to the marriage, that is has been performed by a proper officiant who did their job correctly, and the marriage was done legally. Essentially, they offer some protection to the couple so that their marriage will be legally recognized.
If you don’t want to bring any witnesses with you, there are ways to accommodate this. In most states you can find witnesses to hire, which is an easy solution. For those adventurous couples who love to do things a little differently, I’ve even found strangers to act as a witness. Most people are excited to do it, and even honored.
The requirements for witnesses vary by state. If you’re unsure about how many witnesses you need, or who can perform the role of a witness, you should check with a local official in that state or look at the state guides at the bottom of this page.
What If My Ceremony Won’t be Legal in the State I Elope to?
Ok, so you’ve done your research and found out that some aspect of your ceremony won’t be legal in your chosen state. Perhaps you want to self-solemnize but you can’t? Or maybe you don’t want witnesses?
In cases like these, couples often choose to have the ceremony that they want, and leave out all of the legal stuff. They can then do the legal parts in private either before or after the wedding. The ceremony doesn’t have to form part of the legal marriage, so make this occasion whatever you want it to be.
This brings the best of both worlds, with couples getting to have the ceremony they want and profess their love for one another, and also receive the legally binding documents too.
Will I Have to Take a Blood Test?
No, blood tests have been abolished as part of marriage license applications in all 50 states. You won’t need to take one to apply for a license anywhere in the USA.
What’s the Status of Same Sex Marriage?
Same sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, following the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v Hodges in 2015. This has been formally recognized through the Respect for Marriage Act, which was signed into law in December 2022.
If you’re in a same-sex relationship, you have the exact same nuptial rights as hetereosexual couples. And if you’re wondering, I absolutely support LGBTQ weddings and have photographed several 🙂
Do I Need a Marriage License?
Yes, you will still require a license to marry in all states. Although there are circumstances in which a marriage can be considered valid without one, the easiest way to ensure the legality of the marriage is to marry with a license issued in the state in which the marriage will take place.
Because each state is different, it’s best to check with them before you make your visit. For example, in some states there will be a waiting period between applying and receiving your license. States may also have different age restrictions on who may marry.
To help you plan your elopement, I’ve listed several factors below that you may need to consider.
Can A Foreign National Elope in the USA?
If you live abroad you can come into the USA for your elopement, and as long as you follow the legal requirements in the state in which your ceremony is held, it should be legally recognized in your country of residence.
In order to register your marriage in your home country, you’ll need to follow your country’s procedures. It likely involves having a certified copy of your marriage certificate, so make sure you follow the rules in the state that you’re married in.
There are no residency requirements to apply for a marriage license, but some states have a waiting period so you may need to arrive in the country early. If you plan to stay after your wedding, then depending on the length of stay, you may require a visa. It’s best to do some more research into this.
Proof of Identity
Most places will require you to prove that you are who you say you are. A driver’s license or passport may suffice, but a birth certificate may be required in some states. In some cases, a witness will need to be present to issue a license. Many states will also require to know your social security number, so it may be best to bring your social security card too.
Proof of Eligibility to Marry
If this isn’t your first marriage, you may have to provide a certificate of divorce or a death certificate from the previous marriage. It’s very easy to forget this when you’re deep in the planning for marrying the new love of your life, but it can prevent you from obtaining a marriage license if you are unable to present it at your appointment.
Some states will require a witness for a marriage license application, so check with the clerk’s office first. Your trusted friend or family member may find it difficult to get to you at such short notice if you’ve left it until the last minute!
Marriage ceremonies can be expensive affairs. In fact, lower costs is one of the key reasons for eloping in 2023. When you’re creating your wedding budget, be sure to add in a fee for the marriage license. The costs typically range from as low as $35 up to $200 in some states. There are states where residents receive a discount, so be sure to check that out in the state guides below.
Remember to take your payment method with you. Most places will accept a credit card, but it may we worth checking in advance.
You may need to factor in some time for the application and actually receiving your marriage license. Although you may be handed your license straight away by some offices, in other cases there are waiting periods to marry once you have applied.
It’s important to bear this in mind when you apply, as you don’t want to miss out by not giving enough time between your application and the wedding date.
Elopements are a great way to get married, bringing a sense of adventure and uniqueness to your wedding day. As long as you follow the regulations in the state you’re marrying in, your elopement will be perfectly legal and recognized as a marriage across the nation.
So enjoy planning your dream day. And if you need a photographer with experience of elopements, get in touch to see if I could be the right person for you.