Ask a Lawyer: What happens if you get married without a license?

“My wife and I had a marriage ceremony, but we never got a marriage license. We’ve been separated for a few years, and I’d like to marry someone else. Do we have to file for divorce before I can remarry, or was the marriage invalid in the first place?”

(Quick note: Family law varies widely from state to state. I’m licensed to practice law in the state of Washington, so in answering your question, I’ll assume you were married in Washington or that you lived in Washington at some point during your marriage.)

Washington statutory law isn’t alone in mandating that parties to a marriage obtain a license before the marriage ceremony takes place. RCW 26.04.140. Under RCW 26.04.200, someone who intentionally violates the license statute is guilty of a misdemeanor. Some states have specific language in their statues saying that the failure to obtain a marriage license invalidates the marriage. Other state statutes don’t have this language, but state courts – California’s, for instance – have interpreted the statutory mandate strictly, with the same result: Not obtaining a marriage license will invalidate the marriage. See, e.g., Estate of DePasse, 97 Cal. App. 4th 92, 118 Cal. Rptr. 2d 143 (2002).

Washington statutes, however, don’t contain language invalidating unlicensed marriages. Moreover, Washington courts don’t take California’s strict approach to statutory interpretation, choosing instead to uphold the validity of a marriage that has been “solemnized” (i.e., performed as part of some sort of religious or non-religious ritual by someone authorized by RCW 26.04.050), and isn’t invalid for some other reason like bigamy, blood relation, or legal incapacity. See State v. Denton, 97 Wn. App. 267, 271, 983 P.2d 693 (1999). So the simple failure to obtain a marriage license doesn’t invalidate your marriage.

The end result is this: As long as your marriage isn’t invalid for some other reason – it wasn’t actually solemnized, one of you was married to another person at the time you married each other, you’re closely related by blood, etc. – you are indeed married, and you’ll have to get divorced before you can legally marry someone else.

Disclaimer: The content in this blog is intended to be used for informational purposes only. Nothing herein should be construed as legal advice or opinion. If you are seeking legal advice, please contact us.

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