Confidential Marriage: A California Tradition for the Secretive at Heart

Thursday, June 20, 2013

If same-sex unions become legal again in California, gay couples will be able to partake of a little-known benefit already enjoyed by secretive heterosexuals in the know: confidential marriage.

A state law—which has been on the books since 1878, and Joe Mathews at Zócalo Public Square says is pretty much unique to California—allows couples to keep their marriages out of the public record and away from prying eyes.

The state didn’t, and doesn’t, have common law marriage and adopted confidential marriage as a way for couples to quietly legitimize children born out of wedlock. Technically, the law said a couple had to already be living together to qualify. Realistically, the law didn’t say an hour-long cohabitation is too short a time.

Church officials liked the law because they became the go-to source of such marriages and fewer people were left living in sin. The state had an interest in clarifying inheritance rights.    

The California Legislature updated the law in 1972, revoking the church’s exclusive confidential marriage franchise and helping kick-start the wedding chapel industry. Mathews says confidential marriages rocketed from 1,200 in 1972 to 58,000 a decade later—one-third of all marriages in the state.

In addition to “living together,” confidential marriage applicants don’t need to have a witness at the ceremony, which must take place in the same county as where the license is issued. The marriage record will only be available to the parties named on the certificate and they need a notary to verify who they are. No blood test is required.

Who does that nowadays and what is their motivation? Can’t say. It’s all kind of confidential. People in a hurry for a license who just want to pop in and out are supporting an entire cottage industry. It’s a big selling point at The Monterey Stone Marriage Chapel.

Famous people have been known to appreciate its anonymity, as have people who want to hide their married status from the government, the workplace, financial parties or social acquaintances.      

Craig Manson at GeneaBlogie cites the case of Janet Manser-LaMont, who wanted to hide it from the Social Security Administration. She obtained a confidential marriage license in 1991 and received $130,116.16 in Social Security benefits over the next 15 years by claiming she was unmarried. She got caught, pleaded guilty (pdf) to a felony, was given probation and told to pay the money back. 

Confidentiality, apparently, has its limits.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Go Ahead: Keep Your Marriage Secret (by Joe Mathews, Zócalo Public Square)

California Becomes the Land of Quick and Discreet Marriages (by Judith Cummings, New York Times)

Types of Marriage Licenses (California Department of Public Health)

Confidential Marriage License (Getting Married in Los Angeles County)

Confidential Marriage in the United States (GeneaBlogie)

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