As you may know, I’ve been working on a series covering marriage laws throughout the 50 United States. Interestingly enough, as I was looking up laws in Michigan, I found out they have had a law on the books since 1897 governing secret marriages. So what is a secret marriage? So glad you asked, because I was curious and went to do some digging.
Secret marriages are just that – a marriage that occurs in secret. They are civil ceremonies that allow a couple to get married without there being an open record of the marriage. Prince Albert Victor, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Janet Jackson, Mae West – these are all people who have had secret marriages.
If you want to get married in secret, you may hold the ceremony in front of a judge in a closed court session. The judge will then sign the marriage certificate and seal the court file regarding the marriage so that it cannot be looked up. Not all states or jurisdictions allow for secret marriages.
In fact, the two states that appear to have secret marriages on their books are Michigan and California. In Michigan, they passed the law that allows for secret marriages in 1897. As a couple planning to get married, you specifically request a secret marriage while applying for the license. You take the license to the officiant, you get married and he will return the certificate to you all signed. The clerk does not record the marriage and the only place you can find a record would be the judge’s sealed file.
For California, couples whom already cohabitate as husband and wife can apply for a confidential license. This would allow them to have a secret marriage without any public record of the ceremony.
So, Why Would You Want a Secret Marriage?
In the modern day, secret marriages are more popular with couples that are in the public eye. Couples like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (who many speculated married in secret prior to their splashy wedding in Italy). A secret marriage prevents the paparazzi from pulling the records and it may also protect the assets of one partner if the other is involved in a lawsuit.
Originally, a couple whose parents were disapproving of the union would engage in a secret marriage. Publishing the bans announcing a wedding is very old school and in many counties, the clerk will release the names of couples that married to anyone who asked whether it was a newspaper.
What About the Public Ceremony?
So how do couples that marry in secret get their license for the public affair? They don’t need one. They can take their officiant aside and inform them. You do not need a marriage license to host a wedding. In fact, the wedding ceremony itself is a social event and most of your guests won’t see the license anyway.
A secret marriage and wedding ceremony gives you and your partner a sense of privacy and intimacy. Who can’t appreciate that in a world where you can look up anyone and anything on the Internet?
Did you know about secret marriages before?