Secret Marriages: What to Know

How to Tie the Knot Without Anyone Knowing

Newlyweds on church steps


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What do George IV, Queen Isabella, John Donne, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mae West, Brandy, and Janet Jackson have in common? They're among many folks throughout history who have had secret marriages.

You don't have to be a celebrity to have a secret marriage. It's a practice that's gaining popularity for various reasons, from privacy to getting things squared away legally before a wedding ceremony. Here are the ins and outs of why a couple might choose to marry in secret and what necessary steps there are to take.

Types of Secret Marriages

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, where secret marriages were approved in 1897, a couple can request 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 live together and recognize each other as spouses, you can apply for a confidential license. This means there is no public record of your marriage.

Getting Married Before the Ceremony

If you want to get married before your wedding ceremony to save time or get any legal ducks in a row, you usually won't need a second license before your big day. In fact, in most areas, the second license wouldn't be legal, anyway. In New York, however, if an officiant requires a marriage license, a couple that has already legally married may apply for a second or subsequent license from the town or city where they were married.

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.

Why Marry in Secret?

Most couples want to have a secret marriage due to legal and/or financial issues, but 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 international legal processes are challenging
  • Family disapproval of the choice of a spouse or parental concerns about the couple's ages
  • Family drama over wedding planning
  • Personal desire

Planning a Wedding

A couple who has married in secret might want to reaffirm their love for one another with family and friends present. They may also want to include their families in a symbolic ceremony. There are no legal restrictions for wedding ceremonies after a secret marriage has been performed. You are also not required to disclose your marital status to your guests ahead of time; if you do decide to let your wedding guests know, it would be appropriate to say so on your wedding invitation.