Confidential Marriage in the United States

Even If There Is No Record, There Still Might Be A Marriage

Another issue for genealogists to consider is that of “confidential marriage.”  In California, a couple who have lived together may obtain a so-called “confidential” marriage.  They need only apply at the county clerk’s office or before a notary specially trained in confidential marriage procedures and claim that they have lived together prior to being married.  The California Family  Code has no time provisions for the cohabitation.  The couple then will receive a confidential marriage license.  Once the marriage is solemnized, the couple may apply for a copy of their confidential marriage certificate.

Confidential marriage records are not open to tje public.  Only the parties to the marriage may obtain these records, except by order of a court.

The question has been asked why, in this era where many, perhaps most, couples have cohabited prior to marriage, would someone want a “confidential marriage”?  The answers vary.   Some say certain people just want the privacy.  Others say that in some cases where pregnancy has resulted before marriage, the couple can keep that fact away from their children later on.  On a California notaries website, I found the story of a couple who had been married in another country in a manner that California did not recognize (this would be  a very rare and unusual situation since California law provides that ” A marriage contracted outside this state that would be valid by the laws of the jurisdiction in which the marriage was contracted is valid in this state.”) So this couple needing to be legally married some time later, opted for a confidential marriage.

There was a time in California and many other states that a “waiting period”  was required between the issuance of a marriage license and the marriage ceremony.   California and many of the other such states also required blood tests of one or both of the parties, most usually for rubella, or in some states, venereal diseases.   These tests generally are no longer required, but in the day, the confidential marriage was a way around them. (The District of Columbia and Mississippi still require blood test for both partners; Montana requires a test for the bride only; New York requires sickle-cell test of all African-American and Hispanic couples).

A California notary opined on the above-mentioned notaries chat forum that confidential marriages seem to occur most frequently in resort areas that have wedding chapels used by people who elope.  I think that’s probably correct.  My first encounter with the concept came when  I (as a former judge) performed a marriage ceremony at Lake Tahoe, California.

There’s another reason for a confidential marriage–not indulged in by the vast majority of people, but it occurred to one particular woman.   According to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Sacramento, Janet Manser-LaMont purchased a confidential marriage license in 1991 and for the next fifteen years, fraudulently received more than $130,000 in Social Security benefits by claiming she was unmarried.

California is the only state that presently permits confidential marriage.  Other states may have authorized it in the past, but I don’t know specifically.   Readers may recall having seen reference in this earlier post to a marriage license of a certain well-known individual who got married in Missouri; the handwritten words “Please do not publish” appear on the face of the document. Below, presented for what I believe is the first time publicly, is that marriage license.

aurandt marr

Marriage License issued to Paul Harvey Aurandt (aka “Paul Harvey”) and Evelyn Betts (aka Lyn “Angel” Cooper)

Ste Genevieve County, Missouri, August 1940

(click to enlarge)


14 Responses to “Confidential Marriage in the United States”

  • Carl says:

    In Idaho, all marriages are confidential for 50 years:

    I wonder what other states have this law. I was quite surprised.

  • Craig says:

    Thanks for your comment! You’re right, California has not repealed its confidential marriage statute!

  • The confidential marriage began back during the Gold Rush Days. Men were everywhere and the women followed :) Babies were born and religion got in the way and wanted folks married. The legislature wanted to pass a law that for “privacy” and “public sake”, no one needed to know when one got married. Children would live with respect :)

    Kind of a joke, but it’s my understanding California never repealed the law, and it’s the only State in the US that allows confidential marriages.

  • Craig says:

    Thanks for reading Geneablogie!

    Let’s clear up some potential confusion:
    California Family Code section 504 provides–

    504. A confidential marriage license is valid only for a period of
    90 days after its issuance by the county clerk and may only be used
    in the county in which it was issued.

    This applies to any county in the state. So if for example,if you received a confidential marriage license in Inyo County, then you would have to use it within 90 days after its issuance and you could only use it in Inyo County. The marriage itself, however, is valid anywhere.

  • Bernard says:

    The only limitation of a confidential marriage license is that, the license is valid only if your marriage ceremony takes place in Los Angeles County.

  • Denise says:

    I have a friend who’s fiance wants a confidential marriage at the 11th hour prior to their ceremony. He says it is to protect his spouse from his financial troubles and to avoid taxes should they increase after the bush tax cuts expire. I think he’s crazy and trying to find a way out. (They have separate homes and it looks like they would have to say they lived together prior.)

  • Chad says:

    Craig, do you know when California began allowing people to marry confidentially? I am thinking about charting how many marriages are listed by year in California’s public marriage indexes and knowing that year would help.

  • Sharon says:

    Craig: True about who else but a genealogist … I guess I was really looking at it from my genealogist point of view. I found the records easily. But the couple’s neighbors in the 1940’s probably would never have known about the divorces and remarriages because they didn’t read about it in the newspaper.

  • Craig says:

    Sharon, thanks for that bit of info. Loved the example, too. Although maybe still the case someplaces today, that originated in the pre-Internet era. If it wasn’t published in the newspaper, it was almost as good as confidential because newspapers were the organs of record (many jursidictions still have “newspapers of record”–if it ain’t in that paper, it ain’t “official”) and because who (but a genealogist or lawyer or similar troublemaker) was going to actually go through records at the county offices?!

  • Craig says:

    Thanks Robyn! You’ve got a pretty informative blog yourself at Reclaiming Kin!

  • Sharon says:

    Re: Do not publish. It was my understanding that this only meant that the marriage was not to be published in the newspaper. Many newspapers regularly publish lists of marriages recorded at the county court house. Some people may not want their marriage listed in the paper. The courthouse records themselves are still available to the public in accordance with the particular state’s usual procedure. I saw this for the first time in West Virginia. It was the man’s 5th marriage (though he only admitted to 2 prior marriages on the license). It was the bride’s third marriage. They had even been married to each other previously (twice). No wonder they didn’t want it in the newspaper.

  • Robyn says:

    I love learning something new in genealogy. I have never heard of this in my life. This was a fascinating post–thanks for sharing!

  • Craig says:

    A notary has to have the approval of the county clerk to issue confidential marriage licenses. California Family Code sections 530-536 explain it.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Very interesting. I’ve been a Notary in California for many years and don’t recall hearing anything about performing confidential marriages. Maybe I should check this out? There might be some extra $$ in it for me, being that I’m so close to Santa Barbara and all. 😉

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