If you and your partner have decided to put a ring on it, mapping out your future together — starting with the wedding — is an exciting time. But planning a traditional wedding can be a little overwhelming and costly, too.
According to The Knot’s 2018 Real Weddings Study, the average U.S. wedding costs $33,931, and that’s not even including a honeymoon. Although some couples receive financial support from family to help cover costs, many couples opt for a courthouse wedding.
Planning a courthouse wedding is one way to save money and simplify the wedding-planning process. Keep reading to learn more about how getting married at the courthouse works, what you may need to say “I Do,” and how to make this wedding option special.
What is a Courthouse Wedding or Civil Wedding?
Courthouse weddings go by a few names, including a “civil wedding” or “civil ceremony.” A civil wedding is a non-religious, legally recognized marital union that’s performed by a government official or civil servant.
Tonia Adleta, owner and creative director of Aribella Events, who’s been in the wedding industry for 20 years, has helped couples navigate the civil wedding process. She said that many of the elements we’ve come to identify as part of a “traditional wedding” can still be incorporated into a civil wedding, like preparing your own vows and including your favorite flowers in your ceremony.
The big difference is that very few of the traditional expectations — like a lengthy ceremony and large guest list — apply.
Courthouse weddings offer couples a good opportunity to simplify the wedding planning process by keeping the ceremony personal, yet intimate.
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Courthouse Wedding Requirements
Like with traditional weddings, your civil wedding must adhere to the legal requirements of your state.
To be considered a legal union, each state has requirements that your civil wedding must meet. For example, many states require you to have a marriage license in hand before your courthouse ceremony, and your state may (or may not) require a witness to be present during the ceremony.
You can find state-specific civil wedding information on your state’s or city’s .gov website, or at your county clerk office.
The cost of a civil wedding also varies, depending on your location. In Los Angeles County, the fee for a public marriage license is $91, and a civil ceremony costs an additional $35. In Boston, a marriage license costs $50 and a ceremony runs an extra $75.
There are other expenses to consider, as well, such as a county- or court-appointed witness or a government-approved officiant.
Courthouse Wedding: What You Need to Get Married
Although a successful courthouse wedding can take less time to plan than a traditional wedding, it’s a good idea to give yourself time for a little planning.
The documentation and timelines you need to be aware of depend heavily on your state’s requirements.
In general, there’s a waiting period between when a marriage license is issued and when it’s active; in Massachusetts, it’s a three-day hold. Once the license is active, it’s valid for a limited number of days; for example, in Los Angeles, marriage licenses expire after 90 days. This means you’ll have to hold your courthouse ceremony before the license expires.
Courthouse wedding checklist
- Do your research. Learn about the specific state and court requirements in your area. Preparing in advance can help you avoid extra trips to the courthouse and added fees that can spoil the experience.
- Gather necessary documents. Start collecting the information you’ll need to bring to apply for a marriage license. “For example, proof of residency, proof of former marriages, annulments, divorces, etc.,” said Adleta.
- Apply for a marriage license. You and your betrothed can now visit your courthouse with your documents ready. Fill out the necessary forms and pay the fee.
- Set a courthouse ceremony date. Determine your preferred courthouse wedding date. Keep in mind that setting a date is first-come, first-served, so planning as early as possible is ideal, especially if you have a certain date or time in mind.
- Secure a court-approved officiant. Confirm through your courthouse that your ceremony has a government official scheduled.
- Get a witness, if needed. If your state requires a witness, choose someone you’d like to include in this special moment, and share the logistics of the ceremony.
- Invite family or friends. You can typically invite a small handful of family or friends to join you during the ceremony. Ask your courthouse about maximum guests permitted.
- Think about post-ceremony celebrations. Whether you and your spouse choose to celebrate on your own or host a reception with those you love, locking in a plan for after the ceremony can be a meaningful and joyous way to mark the occasion.
Considerations When Thinking of Getting Married at the Courthouse
Deciding to have a courthouse wedding is a very personal choice that you and your future spouse will want to talk through together. Although a civil ceremony is a great option, financially, personal considerations should be discussed before taking this route.
Some questions to discuss:
- Do you want your ceremony to be more of an elopement, without others present?
- Will your family or friends be supportive if they’re not invited? Is their opinion important to you?
- Will either of you look back 10 years later and regret not having a traditional or formal wedding?
The right decision will be unique to you, your partner, and your shared preferences and values.
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Planning a Courthouse Wedding or Civil Wedding That’s Uniquely You
If you and your partner are mutually confident and excited about the idea of having a courthouse wedding, there are many ways to make a civil ceremony feel special and tailored to your tastes.
“So many of the Pinterest or Instagram-worthy details that we all love can absolutely still be incorporated into a civil wedding,” says Adleta. “For example, there’s no reason why you still can’t have beautiful stationery to invite your closest friends and family to witness your union.”
Here are a few simple, budget-conscious ways to make your courthouse wedding feel like your own.
If you still want to splurge on designer wedding attire, you can. But with a civil ceremony, spending thousands of dollars on outfits isn’t an expectation. Instead, find clothing that speaks to your personal style.
Gift corsages to your guests
To help set the mood among your guests, set out a basket of corsages and boutonnieres by the courtroom entrance. This extra touch gives sets the vibe of the room, and the florals can act as a wedding favor for guests.
Ask your guests to be your photographers
Civil ceremonies can happen within just a few minutes. Ask your guests to use their smartphones to take candid photographs and videos throughout the big day. This includes while you and your partner are getting ready for the day, during the ceremony, and beyond.
Arrive in style
If you want to arrive at the courthouse in style, consider booking a limousine to and from the courthouse. Another option is ordering a premium vehicle through a rideshare service, like Uber Black, which uses professional drivers for a touch of VIP treatment.
Plan for after the ceremony
Celebratory plans after the ceremony help mark this momentous occasion in your lives. For example, you can have an intimate walk down memory lane by having dinner at the restaurant where you two had your first date. If you want to invite family and friends, planning a small reception later in the day gives your loved ones a chance to toast to your happy union.
Getting Married at the Courthouse: One Bride’s Courthouse Wedding Story
Diana Stellick and her spouse, Matthew, knew they both wanted a courthouse wedding.
“Neither of us s[aw] the point in spending a ton of money while we’re young and still building our savings,” said Stellick. “Weddings, from our viewpoint, take a big chunk out of savings for either us personally, or our parents – if they chip in.”
In January 2019, the couple made their joint vision a reality by getting married in a Los Angeles courthouse. While they thought about the idea of a civil ceremony for about 10 months leading to their big day, their courthouse wedding took about a month to plan.
“I was surprised that you actually have to still plan it,” said Stellick. “I think I was at the courthouse three times in total for paperwork and setting a date. You can’t just walk into the courthouse the day-of and get married.”
In addition to making multiple trips to the courthouse for paperwork, she and Matthew were required to arrive between 30 minutes to an hour ahead of their ceremony appointment time. The courthouse had a tight schedule of other wedding appointments, requiring couples to arrive early to avoid delaying their own ceremony and impacting others.
“There was an officiant, and he tried to get to know us a little bit before the ceremony, which was unexpected,” said Stellick. “The officiant had vows prepared, but you’re allowed to say your own vows if you’d like. Rings are still exchanged, if you want, and you can invite people. I think our courthouse held maybe 15 to 20 seats for guests.”
She said that the civil ceremony experience was quick and relatively hassle-free. After the courthouse ceremony, the newlyweds splurged at an upscale Los Angeles steakhouse to celebrate.
“We did this because we wanted to mark the occasion and treat ourselves. It was our wedding day, after all,” said Stellick.
The couple is currently working toward saving to buy a home outside of L.A. Once they reach this goal, they plan to host a larger wedding reception with close family and friends.
“We have a baby and also want him and any future children to be able to be a part of the fun and celebrate our family with everyone,” said Stellick. “Because of these things, we want to wait to have this part of the wedding tradition until it feels right for us and our family.”
The Bottom Line on Courthouse Weddings
Keep communication open and honest with your partner about whether you’re both on board with a civil wedding. Although there’s still some paperwork and planning involved to ensure it goes off without a hitch, courthouse weddings can still be designed in a way that’s personal to your relationship and style.