Along with death and birth certificates, marriage records are one of the three most common types of basic records in genealogy. If you haven’t used public marriage records to help in tracing your family’s genealogy or researching your DNA, now is the time to start.
Read on to learn about the top 10 things to know about marriage records and how to use them.
1. Marriage Records: Why They Exist
A marriage record is an official document kept by a government agency or religious group to report that a couple has been married. Like other crucial government documents, the purpose of a marriage record is to keep track of the local community or population.
In the early 20th century, as the US government and governments around the world began to offer more benefits and services to their citizens, it became even more important to have up-to-date and accurate population data.
This became especially vital when governments introduced laws to protect people and children from harmful and illegal marriage practices. More specifically, requiring couples to apply for a marriage license ensured both parties were eligible to wed in terms of age, parental consent, marital status, and familial relations.
And if a couple plans to get a divorce, you’ll need to have a marriage record to present a divorce decree.
Marriage records are particularly useful in lineage societies, where you need to have documentation for every birth, death, and marriage in each generation.
2. How Marriage Records Help Trace Family Genealogy
Marriage records are useful for tracing family genealogy, and are often considered more trustworthy than death records. This is because they are primary documents provided by the actual bride and groom.
Marriage records are helpful for genealogists, as they provide concrete proof of basic ancestral facts. They can help verify information you’ve learned from interviewing older relatives, and may reveal things that happened long ago, which others may not be able to accurately recall.
Some basic facts you can gather from marriage records include the bride and groom’s:
- Places of residence
- Parents’ names
- Parents’ birthplaces
- Parents’ birthdates
Witness information can be particularly useful if you’re looking to do a more extensive search into your family’s history. To apply for a marriage license (more on marriage licenses later), couples typically gather the signature of an officiant (the person who performs the ceremony, such as a judge, religious leader, or ordained friend), plus two witnesses. These could be their parents or their close friends. In most US states, marriage license witnesses need to be over the age of 18.
With this information, you can get a better understanding of those people your family members may have known.
3. Where to Find Marriage Records
To search for marriage records, head to the county courthouse. The courthouse can be particularly helpful when searching for older marriage records, as these are almost always held at the county level.
Another good idea is to ask permission to see your relatives’ belongings, as many couples hold commemorative marriage certificates or copies of marriage licenses.
If you don’t know the county or state where a family member was married, search where you think it may be, and check surrounding areas and counties. Some ancestral databases can help you search for marriage records too, such as MyHeritage.
You can typically view marriage records at the courthouse for free, but you’ll likely need to pay if you’d like a copy of a record. However, it’s usually a small fee, which is why genealogy is such a great low-cost hobby.
4. Hidden Information to Look for in Marriage Records
As we mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of great basic information you can pull from marriage records in your genealogical detective work. However, the minor details may also prove useful.
In addition to the names of witnesses and officiants, you can also find names and locations of courthouses or churches where couples were married. Genealogists often overlook these small details, as they don’t seem as important as other information listed in the marriage record.
Information like this may give you an idea about the couple’s religion. From there, you can look into local church records to figure out what church they may have attended, and when.
By cross-referencing your findings with information from ancestral databases like AncestryDNA, you can really start to build out an impressive family tree.
5. Marriage Record vs. Marriage License
Many people use the term marriage record and marriage license interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. While the marriage record is the official record that documents a marriage, a marriage license simply authorizes the permission to marry.
Before a couple gets married, they apply for a marriage license by going to the county courthouse and filling out some forms. They typically need to present ID in the form of a driver’s license or passport. Some states also require couples to show birth certificates, while other states may require a witness to be present for the marriage application process.
On the application, each person lists their name, date of birth, and birth location. They often need to list information about their parents too, such as their birthdates, birth locations, and dates of passing (if applicable).
If the couple is under 18, an accompanying parent has to provide consent. Once these documents have been filled out and approved by the county, the couple is authorized to get married. Some states hand out the marriage licenses immediately after approval, while others send them in the mail.
6. Marriage Record vs. Marriage Certificate vs. Marriage License
Marriage records and licenses also differ from marriage certificates. Marriage certificates are issued after the wedding to prove that the couple was married, while a marriage license is issued before the wedding, stating that a couple is allowed to get married.
Marriage certificates prove that the marriage happened, while marriage licenses merely prove that a couple had permission to get married. So, as a genealogist, it’s important to take your search beyond marriage licenses to marriage certificates if you’re trying to find out if your ancestors were actually married, not just planning to get married.
After a couple gets married, the officiant is responsible for returning the marriage license to the county clerk, either by mail or in person. After this, the county mails the couple a certified copy of their marriage license, also known as the marriage certificate.
The marriage record is what the county keeps in their files, while the marriage certificate is what the couple keeps on file.
Couples often hang on to their marriage certificates, as they need them for many things. One may need their marriage certificate for insurance, social security, bank account, or credit card purposes. Marriage certificates can also be helpful in the event of a divorce.
7. Marriage Banns
If you’re digging deep into your family’s genealogical history, you may also see the term ‘marriage banns’ pop up.
The banns of marriage are the public announcement of an intended marriage, and in earlier centuries, they were often made a few weeks before the couple planned to marry. Marriage banns were a common custom in the southern and New England states up until the mid-1800s.
Often, marriage banns announcements would be made in a local church in front of the congregation, or be posted to the church as written notices. These notices (often referred to as intentions) were presented to the local civil authorities and posted in a public place for a short time. Because town clerks or locals recorded these announcements in a register, you may be able to find marriage banns in your search with other local or religious records.
8. Marriage Bonds
You may also see the term ‘marriage bond’ appear while searching for information about your family. A marriage bond was a written guarantee or promise of payment made by the groom (or other person) to ensure the upcoming marriage would be legal.
The person who posted the bond was known as the bondsman or surety, who would present the bond to the officiant performing the marriage. After the marriage, the bond would be returned to the county clerk, so it sort of operated like a marriage license.
While bonds aren’t necessarily easier to search for than licenses or certificates, they can be useful in your search if you’re running into roadblocks gathering other documents.
9. Marriage Record Substitutes
Sometimes, traditional marriage records don’t exist, even if the couple was legally married. This may be because the region in which the marriage took place didn’t require them, or the courthouse where the records were stored was destroyed by fire, or some other natural disaster.
This is where it can be helpful to do a search for marriage banns or bonds. You can also look through census records to find an approximate marriage date.
10. What to Do if a Marriage Record is Unavailable
Sometimes, a marriage record exists but is unavailable due to local restrictions. For example, New York State seals marriage records after 50 years and divorce records after 100 years. The state even seals them from the couple’s children, even if both parents are deceased.
While New York has some of the most restrictive marriage record laws in the country, other regions also have red tape that can make it difficult for you to access marriage records. If you’re determined, hire a lawyer to send a request to the judge overseeing the records, asking them to unseal them for you.
Marriage records are great resources for tracing genealogy. They can even be more helpful than death records, as they require the consent of two parties, plus the signatures of witnesses and officiants.
Most state courthouses make it easy for you to access marriage records, but if you run into roadblocks, try that lawyer trick and see how far it takes you.