A License to Wed: Can You Be Denied a Marriage License?

by Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP

In October of 2013, the Illinois couple of Colette Purifoy and John Morris were denied a marriage license because of John’s inability to consent. In 2009, John suffered permanent brain damage after unexpected complications from a “simple surgery” and he remains in a vegetative state. According to Colette, the two have been together for over 38 years and had plans to marry prior to John’s brain injury.  In fact, John proposed to Colette, for a second time, minutes before his surgery. Their application for a marriage license was denied because John could neither sign the requisite paperwork nor consent to the marriage due to his vegetative state.

While Colette and John’s case is both extreme and unique, the denial of a marriage license is a very real possibility. Although marriage license laws vary widely from state to state, all states require a couple to obtain a marriage license in order to have a valid union. Because the right to marry is fundamental the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in and prohibited states from denying marriage licenses in the following scenarios:

  1. Interracial Couples: in 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court held that laws prohibiting interracial marriages were unconstitutional.  Therefore, states cannot deny marriage licenses to couples solely due to their race.
  2. Preexisting Financial Obligations: the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Wisconsin statute that prohibited the issuance of a marriage license to a noncustodial parent who was behind in their child support payments.  States cannot refuse to issue a marriage license to an applicant for failure to meet their child support obligations.
  3. Incarceration: in 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that an inmate’s interest in entering into a marriage is constitutionally protected.  The Court struck down a Missouri Division of Correction regulation that required an inmate to show a “compelling reason” to marry and get the pre-approval of the prison’s superintendent in order to get married. After Turner, states were prohibited from essentially banning inmates from marrying non-inmates.

In Pennsylvania, what are the grounds for denying a marriage license?

  1. Generally, minors under the age of 16 cannot obtain a marriage license. However, the Court can authorize the issuances of a marriage license after determining that the union is in the best interest of the minor applicant(s).
  2. A marriage license may not be issued to applicants under the age of 18 unless the minor’s custodial parent or guardian consents to the marriage.
  3. Same-sex couples cannot obtain a marriage license.  Despite the recent U.S. Supreme Court cases granting broader marriage rights to same-sex couples, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania defines marriage as “a civil contract by which one man and one woman take each other for husband and wife.”
  4. People who are insane, weak minded, or of unsound mind are not permitted to obtain a marriage license, unless the Court decides that issuing the marriage license is in the best interest of both the incompetent applicant and the general public.
  5. Pennsylvania law prohibits certain relatives from marrying, including marriages between parent and child, a niece or nephew and their aunt or uncle, and brother and sister. Therefore, persons having such prohibited familial relationships cannot get a marriage license.
  6. If a couple applies for a marriage license and one or both are under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time they apply, Pennsylvania prohibits them from obtaining a marriage license.

If you plan on getting married, it is important to familiarize yourself with the federal, state and local prerequisites for obtaining a marriage license. Barring extreme circumstances, the hurdles to obtaining a marriage license are minimal and non-burdensome since the right to marry is fundamental. Most couples who complete the application in its entirety, present sufficient proof of identification, pay the fees associated with the application and wait the required three days will receive a license to wed.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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