7 Kinds of Marriage Documents

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

Several different types of marriage documents are generated before a couple says “I do.” While all of these won’t exist for any one couple, all are worth looking for.

Marriage Banns

Banns are church-generated documents that were a custom dating back to colonial America. Banns of a couple’s intention to marry were posted or read on three consecutive Sundays.

Marriage Certificates

The document given to the couple after the ceremony, may be found among family papers. It may not have all the personal detail that can be found on a license. Copies of certificates may be recorded in the church or with a town or county clerk.

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Marriage Returns or Registers

Ministers and justices of the peace sent a record of the marriages they performed to the town hall or county courthouse. These were recorded in books called returns or registers. Unfortunately, some marriages were never recorded beyond what the minister or justice of the peace kept in their private journals or ledgers.


Similar to church banns, except filed with the county or town clerk.

Marriage Bonds

Common in Southern colonies and states. A bond was posted before the marriage license by the groom and usually the father of the bride or some other close relative. The bond carried a monetary amount to defray costs in the event the marriage did not take place. Usually recorded in the bride’s county of residence.


These applications to marry usually contain the most genealogical information of all marriage documents, giving personal information on both the bride and the groom, but licenses may not have been required in all states or have survived. They’re most common after the Civil War, when they replaced banns and bonds.

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Prenuptial Contracts

Most common in the South, where the bride brought substantial real or personal property to the marriage that was to remain in her family and not become part of her husband’s property. “Prenups” are more common prior to a second marriage, where the widow wants to insure that her property passes to her first husband’s heirs. Look in deed books and in other court documents.  

From the June 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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