Marriage denotes a legal status in which two people join their interests together by law. It normally involves a couple obtaining a marriage license and then exchanging vows in a ceremony performed by an official sanctioned by the state. Officials who perform marriage ceremonies may include judges, priests, preachers and others.
When a couple gets married, they gain several rights, including certain favored tax statuses, the ability to make decisions if their spouses are incapacitated, property rights and other rights. Attorneys who practice in the area of marriage law are family law attorneys. Both the type of marriage and the marital agreements may affect the rights of the individual people entering into the marriage contracts.
For hundreds of years, the right to marry was accorded only to heterosexual couples. In 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which prohibited marriages between people of the same gender. However, in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that DOMA violated the 5th Amendment, and some states then passed laws allowing same-sex couples to marry as well.
In order to get married, each state has its own requirements for obtaining marriage licenses and the people who are allowed to officiate. Certain types of marriage are prohibited as they are against public policy.
The landscape of marriage changed in June 2015 with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. In its ruling, the court held that prohibiting marriages between couples on the basis of their genders was unconstitutional. This decision effectively overturned all prohibitions against same-sex marriage, granting many people the right to marry for the first time.
Some states recognize a union between a couple who enters into a contract with one another to marry but who do not get a license or go through a ceremony as a marriage. This is called a common-law marriage. It is not recognized by all states. For those states in which the status is recognized, common-law spouses enjoy the same rights as spouses in other marriages. If their relationship dissolves, a couple in a common-law marriage will likewise have to go through a divorce or dissolution procedure.
Some couples enter into agreements with one another prior to marrying concerning the property rights and duties they will enjoy during their marriages. These agreements, called prenuptial agreements, may also affect the property rights of each spouse in the event the marriage ends in divorce.
All prenuptial agreements must be legally valid, meaning they cannot contain provisions that violate public policy. If they do, courts are likely to disregard them in their entirety. In addition, as these agreements are subject to the provisions of general contract law, a court may void one if it finds that one party was coerced into signing it or was forced to sign it under duress.
Many people who decide to enter into prenuptial agreements get the help of a lawyer to make certain they are drafted correctly and that their individual rights are protected. Additionally, couples who have already entered into a marriage may be able to attain the help of a lawyer in drafting a postnuptial agreement.
Marriage law is in place to regulate and encourage the union of two people. Marriage affords a status to people that gives them additional rights and encouraged under the law as a matter of public policy because of the formation of lasting familial relationships.
The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.
Additional Marriage Articles
- Family Law
- What Is Required To Obtain A Marriage License?
- Who Can Solemnize A Marriage?
- What Is A Common Law Marriage?
- Are Spouses Obligated To Have Children Or To Try To Have Children?
- Issues With Getting Married Overseas