Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Does a marriage license matter?

Dear ESB,

My man and I are having a wedding in July. We are a dual-income couple. Signing a marriage license would literally cost us thousands of dollars each year (income tax + student loan repayment assistance I receive, I won't bore you further). So we're not doing it. We want to be husband and wife in every way except on paper with NYC and the IRS.

Cue my father. I rarely talk to him because he is an asshole. Two weeks ago he told me that his side of the family considers our upcoming wedding to be a meaningless "costume party" because we will not sign this piece of paper. (He's not making it up, it's clear that at least my grandmother feels this way.) He gave me a long speech about commitment. (He left my mother a few years ago to date younger women.) My guy and I have already been together for six years, moved across the country together, bought a home together, planned career paths around one another, mingled finances, &c. "Commitment" is not an issue for us.

I know my dad is just a dick, but he got under my skin. I've asked a few friends if he's right and everyone says he's not, but I'm afraid that no one will say the truth to my face. I'd like an honest opinion from a total stranger:

1. Is it stupid to have a wedding if we don't sign a marriage license?

2. If they feel this way, should I (gently) tell my dad and grandmother they are not obligated to show? (Not a bluff, I would be partially relieved if they took me up on it.)

Thanks. And thanks for writing an actually useful wedding blog.


1. Not stupid AT ALL. Get the damn license when/if it makes financial sense, not before.

2. Yes

Jose Molenaar by Richard Bakker via Fashion Gone Rogue


  1. Wow! Firstly, thanks for actually airing a REAL wedding/marriage problem! Secondly, I seriously feel for you - it's hard enough having people weigh in with uninvited comments on the petty so-much-less-necessary parts of a wedding, never mind the very centre of it!

    I'm in 100% agreement with esb: it's completely unfair for anyone to weigh in on this decision of yours and your man's, and if they don't recognise the ceremony as a meaningful life commitment, then maybe they needn't share the day with you. That'll soon show them that this is much more important to you than a costume party!

    And, I hope you both have a wonderful wedding and a long happy illegal marriage!

  2. Don't sign. It is a piece of paper that only means something to government. Your commitment to each other and the ceremony is what means something to YOU, and the two of you are what matter.

  3. You are never going to make everyone happy. We signed our certificate a whole year BEFORE the wedding for the same reason (we were young and the tax break literally paid for our wedding)and were paranoid about what the response might be. But it makes absolutely zero sense for you to put some weird emotional hangup your family might have above your need for financial stability.

    Plus, if they can't see the commitment coming out of your marriage then they don't deserve to be there anyway.

  4. Totally agree. Weddings are celebrations of unions, which can be inclusive or not inclusive of the legal institution. Gay folks who can't legally get married but have a wedding are just as 'married' as anyone else with a license, and so are you.

  5. I'm sorry your dad is being such a dick. Keep your head up, don't sign the license [skip the marriage penalty and just enjoy the good/personal stuff], and remember - it's no one's business but you and the future H.

  6. Remember the queers. Your dad just called my wedding a meaningless costume party, which is what it'll remain until the US Supreme Court gets off its ass. (My mom desperately wants us to make it legal, because that's the part she thinks is important. I'm ambivalent.)

    That said, have you thought about other things you get with the signatur? Like your husband making medical decisions (instead of your dad) and inheriting tax free and not having to worry about gift tax if one of you makes more money? It's not just this year's income tax.

  7. Marriage licence doesn't mean anything. The best couple I know, the most in love ever, the best family ever, is a couple who never signed any wedding license. The just trew an awesome carnival party, where a friend dressed as a cardinal (we are italian after all...) joined them in marriage. They've been together since 1995, have a daughter, and think they won't marry until even gay people in Italy have the same rights as heterosexual couple. Go on, never mind your father opinion... you already told what he is for you...

  8. Like Rhubard pointed out, the marriage license validates your marriage for more than just tax purposes. Your wedding sounds like a celebration of a commitment you've already made to each other, which is awesome, but I get why your dad is confused (though he doesn't have to be a dick about it)

  9. you've been together 6 years and own a house together, in most states you are already common law/de facto married anyway!

    not sure if that gives you any rights though with next of kin type stuff. Although - when my grandmother had a stroke and my 'grandpa' (her life partner for the past 20 years, she didn't want to remarry so they never got married) took her to the hospital, they asked 'are you the husband and can we give her this new experimental drug that could help her?' he sure as hell said 'yes I am' and 'yes, do it'. It didn't matter they never signed a piece of paper, he saved her life.

  10. I have to echo what nikki and Rhubarb said. If it's going to be a few years before you sign the paper, you should visit an attorney who specializes in family law. He/she can advise you on your wills and financial assets. This is especially important if you want to buy a home together or have kids.

    Anyways, I agree that your dad is being an asshole. Don't let him rain on your parade! Go forth and have a happy marriage, be it legal or otherwise.

  11. Don't let your dad ruin your big day! You can sign the papers if/when you're ready.

    However, just to be devil's advocate, I want to point out that it might rub some people the wrong way if you use finances to justify why you don't want to be legally married yet. It could be equated to when welfare recipients choose not to marry their children's fathers to avoid losing government benefits. (I realize that there are situations where that may be the only way for them to survive, however, I think it rubs a lot of people the wrong way.)

  12. PSA: You are *not* probably common-law married already, which generally requires you to present yourselves as married to the larger community.

    Depending on the state, you might be common-law married after the wedding, regardless of the certificate. But 1) only 11 states (including DC) allow for the creation of a common law marriage (list is here) and 2) realistically, no one is going to try to force you to file as married because of a common law marriage; the provisions exist to protect people who WANT to be married but never signed a license.

    [IANAL, this is not legal advice, but I do study legal history professionally.]

  13. You can draft power of attorney papers for everything: medical proxy, estate mangers, etc... Ditch the license!

  14. I have to say, it does rub me the wrong way that people would not make it legal purely for tax reasons, it just seems a little dishonest. But then again, I'm probably just bitter/jealous because my husband and I didn't think of that when we got married a year ago and then we got stuck with a massive, ginormous tax bill in April.

  15. I don't really think it's anyone's business what you do. I have been to 30+ weddings and honestly have no idea how many of them are "legally" married nor do I give a fuck. It's weird to me that it "rubs some people the wrong way" as if there's something illegal about it. By not signing you won't reap the benefits of marriage, and thus shouldn't have to carry the financial burdens. There's no legal requirement if you have a party celebrating your relationship you MUST legally get married.

    That said, it would have probably been best not to mention the non-signing thing to anyone. What was the point? It's no one's business.

  16. Can someone explain to me how this works? I've always only heard that you get tax breaks if you get married.

    OP: I agree with everyone else. Do what works for you!! You will have a lovely, meaningful day.

  17. Agreed.

    If you wanted to you could symbolically sign something that the two of you had written, if you want to add the meaning of the written word into the ceremony (or just in private?)
    If you're thinking of having children you could put the money saved aside for them. (Or just spend it living). It seems more odd to lose the money just to appease someone else (even if it were someone you respected).

    Committed life-partnerships are real even if there's no wedding at all.

  18. I am so grateful for this question and all of these fabulously thoughtful responses. My partner and I have had very similar discussions, but don't know anyone who has chosen to forego the actual physical certificate. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of the government, and neither one of us see a point in asking the state to validate our (someday, maybe!) union. This is coming from someone who has never been married, but i feel this decision makes your commitment that much stronger. It's beautiful that you have decided to keep choosing each other everyday, regardless of any legally binding contract.

  19. I think you guys should do what you want to do and your family should MYOB. That being said, have you considered filing separately? My understanding is that if you file separately you are still eligible for loan repayment plans (like IBR) based upon one income, not joint income. There are legal benefits that come alongside that piece of paper in most states.

  20. There is a lot of literature and documentation available which explains that a marriage LICENSE, historically, was only to be obtained if the marriage would otherwise be unlawful (i.e. one person is under the age of consent or one person is not of sound mind and able to consent, etc.) A license was therefore obtained so the couple could marry with the state's permission, which by the way, makes the STATE a third party to the marriage contract. (Yes, the cold hard truth is that commitment is commitment, but marriage is a civil contract between parties.) By applying for a state license, you are actually declaring yourself incompetent/unable to consent. The marriage LICENSE is what grants the state the power to control the "fruits of the marriage" (any future children) and govern any future divorce proceedings. You do not need a marriage license to have a legal and lawful marriage contract. Most states will allow you to submit a notification of marriage (if you so desire) which will have the state record that your marriage occurred. (This is what you would have to submit if you had gotten married in another country and then moved to the U.S.) Usually this requires proof of a ceremony, witnesses, proof of consenting parties, and proof the couple represents themselves publicly as married (the definition of that varies). You can also consult an attorney and draw up a legal and lawful civil marriage contract.
    And by the way, yes, married couples can file their tax returns separately from each other. You do this by choosing the "married filing separately" filing status on Form 1040 (box 3 on page one of Form 1040). Ask your accountant about this.

  21. Ugh, sorry your dad is being a jerk.

    I say do what you want. I heard a Freakonomics podcast a couple months ago about marriage & kids and they interviewed a bunch of economist couples for it. One of the couples chose not to get the license for exactly that reason - it made more sense for them financially to not sign. They've been together for ages, bought a house together, have a child. Pretty committed to one another and without the license. So do what you want. And good luck with the family drama. xx

  22. @Miss K - If you're income is above a certain level, you'll pay additional taxes for filing jointly. Google "marriage penalty."

  23. Even if you file separately while married, you still incur a marriage penalty - talk to your accountant and lawyer about this [and ask around w. trusted friends and fam to get recommendations for good people] - you can ALWAYS sign a marriage license later, if it makes sense for future yous.

    this is way more work than a license, but it'll meet your goals and protect you in case [heaven forbid] something unexpected happens.