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What is Civil Marriage?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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A civil marriage is performed by a government official and recognized as a legal ceremony by the government. It is contrasted to a religious marriage, where a representative of a religious group presides. Civil marriage is also different than obtaining a license to marry and it may differ from secular marriage, which is performed by any individual, religious or not, with the legal permission from a state to officiate at a wedding ceremony. In some regions, people can become marriage officiators by application over the Internet, and can then preside at weddings and legally sign any documentation assuring that a marriage has taken place.

Diverse rules govern the civil marriage in individual regions. In some countries, people are required to undergo a brief civil ceremony before any type of religious ceremony. Once the civil marriage is performed, it’s usually not necessary to have any other form of ceremony, but if a couple wants religious recognition of the marriage, they would have a second wedding at a church, mosque, temple or elsewhere with a representative of their religion presiding.

In other regions, a religious ceremony has to take place before a civil marriage ceremony. The state-recognized marriage serves as a way to register the marriage. In places like the US, couples have the option of a civil marriage, or a religious or secular one. Most couples must obtain a license prior to the marriage ceremony so that it will be recognized as legal, but then can choose who will officiate. The marriage is legally recognized after the ceremony takes place and the requisite documents are filed.

The traditional civil marriage ceremony is held in a public place like a courthouse. Judges or justices of the peace are the most common officiants. Some of these government representatives, since they’re empowered by the state to perform marriages, do travel and will marry couples at the location of their choice. On the other hand, most often the marriages occur in city or town buildings and are simple and short.

There’s been tension on the issue of what constitutes marriage, and these arguments still resonate. Organizations like the Catholic Church don’t recognize civil marriage and insist couples must be married by the church, thus receiving the sacrament of marriage. Today, one of the biggest issues in places like the US is who has legal right to marry. In a few states, civil and/or religious weddings take place between same sex couples, but these marriages aren’t recognized by other states, and the majority of states forbid these marriages completely. Many religious groups also don’t recognize these unions.

Some remote areas of the world have no form of registry or civil marriage. Couples wishing to get married simply declare their intentions or go through culturally traditional wedding ceremonies. Larger governments tend to discourage this and want official records for the purposes of census and for things like taxation.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Drentel — On Sep 03, 2014

With the price for an average wedding going through the roof and continuing to get higher, I am one father who is in favor a quick, simple and much less expensive civil marriage ceremony. Seriously, isn't it unbelievable how much some people who are living from paycheck to paycheck spend on weddings?

If you are wealthy and can afford to spend a fortune on a wedding then that's totally different. But the most ridiculous thing you can do is start out marriage in debt because you spent all of your money and your parents' money on the wedding.

By Laotionne — On Sep 03, 2014

Maybe I am just an out-of-touch traditionalist, but I had no idea a person could get a license off the Internet to perform marriages and sign legal documents until I read this article. This is just wrong. Marriages should be performed by religious leaders or by a justice of the peace in a civil marriage. This is another example of how society continues to lessen the significance of the institution of marriage.

By Sporkasia — On Sep 02, 2014

I like what I read in the last paragraph of this article where it says that in some places in the world people who want to marry simply let everyone know what they are planning to do, and then they have a traditional wedding and this enough. There is no requirement to sign documents and get a marriage certificate or have a governmental agency validate the marriage in any way.

Maybe this is not practical for every place in the world, but I like the simplicity of the process: you fall in love, declare your love, wed and then you are married and go on with your life. This is the process of marriage at its best in my opinion.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia...
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