Marriage brings to mind an array of images: romantic proposals, beautiful weddings with exotic honeymoons, navigating the day-to-day realities of living as a married couple. What most people don’t think of when marriage is discussed is a legal agreement, but that is what marriage truly is. For a marriage to be recognized by a state, it must be entered into by two parties who meet basic requirements that vary from state to state, but generally include:

An age requirement for most states of 18 years with exceptions allowed as young as 16 years with parental consent. Some states require that both parties be 21 years old to wed without parental consent or allow for children as young as 13 years to wed with parental consent and court permission.

In most states, a requirement that the parties consist of one man and one woman, except in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Massachusetts and Connecticut do allow for same-sex marriages, but those marriages may not be recognized as legally valid or binding in other states (see Defense of Marriage Act).

A requirement that both parties are entering into the marriage voluntarily and not under any duress.

A requirement that the parties are not related by blood (i.e. kinship). This is why some states require blood tests prior to marriage. Some states do make allowances for distant relatives to marry.

A requirement that a state-issued marriage license be legally executed by both parties and an official sanctioned by the state to perform marriages, such as a Justice of the Peace or a state-recognized clergy member. The license will become part of public records. It is interesting to note that many Internet sites are built around marriage licenses; Web sites offering “free marriage records” make it simple to search through marriage license records online. Fake marriage licenses are readily available online, feeding a demand from people who want to receive the legal benefits of marriage (see below) without being legally married.