Marriage is an institution that has long been associated with documentation, whether a marriage bond, a marriage license or marriage banns. It remains an institution steeped in traditions that have ties to historical practices and requirements - as well as to public health concerns.
Many of the documents surrounding the institution of marriage were required out of concern for fraud or the spread of disease. If a man's name and identifying information were posted prior to a marriage, neighbors and officials took note, spreading word that might eventually root out an imposter or wanted man interested only in collecting a dowry or taking over a woman's family property.
Marriage records also help to establish children's lineage which is used to collect inheritances, divide property and establish residency.
Marriage bonds were funds posted by the bride's family, promising that a legal union would take place. Once married, the bond funds were used to pay the minister or clerk performing the ceremony. Bonds are no longer a requirement but this could be the source of the tradition that the bride's family pays for the ceremony and festivities.
Marriage banns or intentions were notices of intention required to be posted or published prior to a ceremony, notifying the community of the impending union. While these are no longer legally required, many religious groups may still publish notices out of tradition. Banns and intentions were a method of limiting fraud and polygamy, which often left poor, abandoned children on the public dole.
Marriage licenses are still required for legal unions in most states and may be obtained at the town or city clerk's office where the couple plans to wed. Many states require that the couple appear in person to make the application, bringing birth certificates to attest to the individual's legal age (those under a certain age may need parental permission to wed) and may require that several days pass before it is valid. A certified copy of a divorce document may also be required from those previously married. Witnesses and the presiding authority performing the ceremony or union may be required to sign the license at the time the marriage is made official. The presiding official also notes the union in an official register of the place (town, city or county) as part of the public record.
Marriage license applications generally record the names, addresses, ages and occupations of the couple being wed along with information about the presiding authority, whether a clerk or minister. Additional information including the names of witnesses may also be found here.
In the United States and its territories a few locations (states including New York, Montana and territories like Puerto Rico) still require certain blood tests to accompany the marriage license application. Once common, most states dropped the blood test requirement for communicable diseases and blood type compatibility in the last 20 years. One of the heritable blood issues that were flagged in premarital blood tests included sickle cell anemia, common to those of African-American descent.
States have individual requirements for marriage licenses, the most controversial of them used to be limiting eligibility to traditional male-female couples only. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right to same-sex marriage but some local jurisdictions have refused to go along and may resist overtly or covertly. While many state-specific requirements have been updated, such as to allow interracial marriages that were once illegal, many states have long allowed first cousins to marry without restriction (some states allow cousins to marry but with the caveat that no children are produced from the union to limit genetic deformities and disabilities).
An alternative to a marriage license is common-law marriage which is not necessarily documented at its start as traditional marriage may be. Common law marriage refers to a couple living together for a certain period of time that constitutes a legal union after which assets are considered shared. Oftentimes a common law marriage isn't officially recognized until a dissolution of the union takes place and child support must be established or assets legally divided (as in divorce). States that recognize common law marriage include Montana, Kansas, New Hampshire, Colorado, Texas and South Carolina (oftentimes with restrictions as to the application of the definition of common law union). Other states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Georgia specifically outlawed common law marriage but grandfathered those in existence before the prohibition went into place.