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What is a marriage record? A legal document joining two people with property, inheritance, and tax benefits? A religious vow and acknowledgment of the starting of a new family in a congregation? The chance to celebrate love with your community of family and friends? Depending on the time and place, it could be just one or all three.

Marriage records are an important part of family history. They answer a number of questions: What was my grandmother's maiden name? Were any of my ancestors married multiple times? Is it possible they never married? Marriage records can help paint a more complete picture of our family stories.

Types of Marriage Records

When learning more about your family through marriage records, a good place to start is with civil records. There are several types:

Marriage licenses

These documents are requested by the bride and groom before the wedding. They are the state's or county's permission for the couple to marry based on basic criteria like being old enough (ages are usually included) and not already married (single, widowed, or divorced). Sometimes occupation, parents names, birth date and place, and race are also included. At the wedding, the officiant and witnesses will sign the license and submit it to the county or state.

Marriage certificates

Certificates are issued by the state after the wedding, showing the marriage license has been received and approved. It will state the names of the bride(s) and groom(s), the officiant, the witnesses, and the day and place of the ceremony.

Marriage registers

Marriage registers are official books containing marriage record entries that read like a spreadsheet: rows of marriages and columns listing names, dates, and places.

Marriage bonds

Marriage bonds are an older type of record (most often used during the colonial era and in Mid-Atlantic and Southern states.) They were a formal announcement of the betrothed's engagement and a sign between the families that the ensuing marriage would be legal. Marriage bonds also provided the opportunity for anyone with an objection to come forward.

In addition to civil records, church records are an excellent source of marriage records. In fact, it wasn't until the 20th century, that the civil registration of marriages began to be legally required. So marriage records for earlier time periods - and even some 20th-century marriages - would often be in church records.

Tips for Finding Marriage Records on Ancestry

Ancestry has millions of marriage (and divorce) records. See the search tips below to get started.

Formulate a guess for when your ancestors married.

When searching for marriage records, knowing the year will help narrow your search. If you don't know the exact year, that's okay. One great clue for what year their marriage took place is the birthdate of their oldest child, so look for marriage records a few years before and after their oldest child was born. The birthplace of their oldest is also a good starting point for where they likely married.

Watch the dates.

A marriage license is the government's permission for a couple to marry and ensures their union is legal. Some couples received their license upwards of 30 days before the wedding, so sometimes the date on the license isn't the actual wedding date.

Look in local newspapers for marriage, engagement, or anniversary announcements.

These records usually include family relationships. And the date and location of the newspaper can help you narrow down when and where to look for the marriage record.

Extend your search to church records.

Church records, as mentioned, are another great source of marriage records. Keep in mind that church marriages are often recorded in a register with christenings, marriages, and burials. Sometimes the marriages are under separate headings, but sometimes all the event types appear together. Another important thing to keep in mind when searching church records is that you need to know what religion your ancestors practiced to know where to start looking.

Keep an eye out for maiden names.

Maiden names are how the names of the women in your family were recorded in marriage records. So keep that in mind when searching for the marriage records of women in your family: Use maiden names.

By the same token, marriage records are an excellent place to identify maiden names that you did not previously know. So keep an eye out for them, as maiden names are key for family history research. They can help you trace the women in your family in other records, like birth records, so you can discover details like when they were born and who their parents were.

Ready to take the plunge?

Marriage records are echoes of what was one of the most significant days of your ancestors’ lives. Details like who the witness was and when and where the marriage record was created are clues that could help you better understand your ancestors and their lives. Learning your family's story is exciting, and you never know what's in your family tree until you start exploring the branches. See what you can find when you start searching marriage and divorce records on Ancestry today.