Secret Marriages - the Legalities of Do-Overs

Are Do-Overs Legal?

Newlywed couple descending steps together
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George IV, Queen Isabella, John Donne, Sir Robert Dudley, William Wycherley, Prince Albert Victor, Theodore Beza, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mae West, Brandy, and Janet Jackson are just a few of the many folks throughout history who have had secret marriages.

Today, many couples, even non-celebrities, have secret marriages. You may have lots of questions about this process and why it happens. Here's how and why a couple can get married again in front of their family and friends even after having another legal wedding at an earlier point in time.

What Is a "Secret Marriage?"

Many couples throughout the ages have had secret marriages for different reasons. There are several types of secret marriages. 

  • A civil secret marriage is a marriage that is not revealed to family and friends. 
  • A judicial secret marriage is one held before a judge, in a closed court session. This type of marriage is allowed in some jurisdictions under special circumstances, but not in all locales.
  • In Michigan, back in 1897, secret marriages were approved. If a couple requests a secret marriage after the ceremony is solemnized, the officiant returns the certificate, but no record is kept, except the judge's record, and the file is sealed.
  • In California, if you have lived together as husband and wife, you can apply for a confidential license. This means there is no public record of your marriage.

Do We Need a Second Marriage License

"My fiance and I want to get married before we have our large wedding ceremony. Do we have to get a second marriage license before our planned big wedding? We do not want anyone to know we are already married." 

No, you do not need to get a second marriage license. In fact, in most locales, the second license would not be legal anyway. 

You should let the officiant of your planned wedding know that you are already married. Some couples arrange to meet with the officiant privately for a few minutes after the wedding ceremony so their guests will think that they are signing the marriage certificate.

In New York State, if an officiant requires a marriage license, a couple already legally married may apply for a second or subsequent license from the Town or City where they were married.

Why Do Couples Want to Have a Secret Marriage?

Most couples want to have a secret marriage due to legal and/or financial issues. There are as many reasons for having a secret marriage as there are couples marrying secretly. Here are some common reasons: 

  • The immigration status of one partner is at stake
  • A destination wedding is planned and the legalities of making it official are a challenge
  • Family disapproval of the choice of a spouse or thinking one or both of you are too young to marry
  • Family drama over wedding planning
  • Personal desire

We've Been Married Secretly for a Year. Now We Want to Have a Wedding. Is This Okay?

Sure it is. Many couples want to reaffirm their love for one another with family and friends present. They also want loved ones present to celebrate. 

Should We Let People Attending the Second Wedding Know That We Are Already Married?

That is truly up to the two of you. If you do decide to let your wedding guests know of your marital status, it would be appropriate to say so on your wedding invitation.

  • Example: On January 2nd, we married one another in a civil ceremony. Please join us to celebrate our love for one another before family, friends, and God.  

 There are many reasons for a couple to get married in secret. It is also acceptable to have another celebration, wedding, commitment ceremony or ritual again in honor of your marriage. You do not need an excuse or justification to do so! 

*Article updated by Marni Feuerman