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Issuer of marriage licenses hears love stories

Getting Hitched
Sarah E. Edwards, register of wills and clerk of the Orphans' Court, Marriage License Bureau, Butler County, shows a marriage license on her computer at the Butler County Government Center in downtown Butler. Cary Shaffer/Butler Eagle

Working in the county office responsible for issuing marriage licenses can be a heartwarming job. Meeting couples who want to spend their lives together can make even the worst day better. It’s hard to stay grumpy in the face of love.

Of all the things she’s seen since starting at the Butler County Register of Wills in 2016, Sarah Edwards said the one that stands out in her mind the most is the day Mr. and Mrs. Claus walked in to apply for their marriage license.

“The couple was in a full Mr. and Mrs. Claus wardrobe when they came in last December to apply,” she said, chuckling. “It was definitely one of the most memorable couples I’ve ever helped.”

Sometimes, the stories of the couples they grant marriage licenses to are sad. “We get couples who have been together for years and one of them is ill or dying, so they want to get formally married before one of them passes,” Edwards said.

Other times, they get military men and women on short leaves or who are getting ready to ship out and want to marry their special someone before they go. In those cases, her office waives the usual three-day waiting period for a marriage license. The couples can then apply for their marriage licenses and get married on the same day.

“Our couples span the age range, from young couples to elderly couples,” Edwards said.

She recalled a recent older couple who had taken advantage of the common law marriage rules in Pennsylvania a long time ago. Common law marriage no longer is recognized in the state, which means the couple couldn’t get a certified marriage license. It was something they discovered they needed when they applied for their Real IDs at the Pennsylvania Driver’s License Center.

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“It was really sweet,” said Edwards. “After 40 years of common law marriage, they applied for a self-uniting marriage license and finally got their commitment to one another recognized on paper.”

Her office issued 963 marriage licenses in 2021. So far this year, they’ve hit 600. Edwards said June through September are the busiest months for marriage license applications, with Fridays the most popular day for in-person applications.

“The most applications we’ve ever had in one day was 15. We usually average about 100 a month during our busy period.”

Before heading down to the Butler County Courthouse to apply for your marriage license, there are a few things that Edwards suggests doing to ensure a smooth experience.

“First, you need to know what kind of marriage license you want,” she said. “There are two types of marriage licenses you can get in Pennsylvania. The first is a self-uniting license and the second is a traditional marriage license.” Couples must tell the clerk in advance which kind they prefer.

A self-uniting license doesn’t require an officiant. All that couples need to do to meet the official requirements for this type of marriage license is have two witnesses sign it in the presence of Edwards or one of her staffers. Self-uniting licenses are perfect for couples who want legal documentation of their marriage without necessarily going through a formal wedding ceremony.

A traditional marriage license requires an officiant to formalize the marriage. Following your wedding ceremony, the officiant signs the marriage license and sends it back to the county. Once her office receives it, a certified marriage certificate is mailed to the couple for their records.

“We get a lot of questions about who can solemnize a marriage, because of the rise in popularity of becoming ordained online,” Edwards said. “Officiants don’t have to register with Butler County to make the process legitimate.”

Couples should spend a few minutes on the Butler County website at butlercountypa.gov exploring the handy marriage application checklist before making a trip down to her office, Edwards suggested.

Before she or any other staffer in the office can process a marriage license application, they need the following:

• A $60 application fee (cash or credit card payment only)

• Certified divorce decrees (if applicable)

• Certified name change (if applicable)

• Original death certificates (if applicable)

• Social Security card

• Valid identification (driver’s license, certified birth certificate, active military ID, photo ID card)

Every applicant must answer specific questions before the marriage license request can be filed, Edwards said. Those questions appear on the website. She recommends going over them to prepare before coming down to see her.

While her office prefers in-person marriage applications, Edwards said they also can arrange for virtual application appointments on request.

“We started doing this during COVID and have continued offering the option because it’s more convenient for some couples,” she said.

One of the first Butler County couples to take advantage of the virtual application had a planned wedding date.

“The groom-to-be was hospitalized with COVID in serious condition,” Edwards said. “The couple decided they didn’t want to wait, so we did a virtual marriage license for them and waived the waiting period so they could get married right away.

“Thankfully, he recovered and they’re now planning for their ceremony in September even though they’re already officially married.”

No matter how you apply, marriage licenses expire within 60 days, Edwards warned. There’s a three-day waiting period from the time couples apply until they have their licenses in hand. Lastly, they’re only good for marriage ceremonies held in Pennsylvania.

Sarah E. Edwards, left, register of wills and clerk of the Orphans' Court, Marriage License Bureau, Butler County, and Second Deputy Marie Collins show the very large record books inside the Butler County Government Center in Butler. Cary Shaffer/Butler Eagle