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Is he or she married?

Mission impossible:
Finding out if someone is married

Suppose, just as a precaution, you want to make sure your new romantic interest isn’t already married. Verifying someone’s marital status can be summarized in two words: mission impossible.

If your beau wants to hide a marriage, all he or she has to do is not tell you about it. Unless you know exactly where to look—which state, which county courthouse, which year—it is extremely difficult to find marriage records.

Every state has different rules for marriage records

In the United States, legal authority for registering vital records—births, deaths, marriages and divorces—resides individually with the states. Each state has its own procedures for registering marriages and divorces. And each state has its own regulations for releasing marriage information. For example:

• In Nevada, Florida and Texas, marriage and divorce records may be searched over the Internet through a company called KnowX.

• In Ohio, marriage and divorce records are located in the probate courts of each county. The Ohio Department of Health maintains statewide marriage abstracts, which indicate that someone applied for a marriage license, although not whether he or she actually got married. If you know the names of the bride and groom, you may submit a written request to search the abstract. It cannot be searched without both names.

• In Pennsylvania, marriage records are maintained by each county’s Orphans’ Court, which sets its own procedures for requesting records. Divorce records are kept by the prothonotary—the elected custodian of county court records.

• In Kansas, marriage records are not public information.

In California, there are two types of marriage licenses: public and confidential. All marriage records are maintained by the counties, and records for public marriages may be searched.

Although confidential marriages seem tailor-made for privacy-seeking celebrities, they have actually been legal in California since the mid-1800s. The original purpose was to allow couples who had been living together to legitimize their relationship, especially after children came along, without an embarrassing admission to the community that they were not already married.

With a confidential marriage license, no witnesses are required at the ceremony, only the marriage officiant. Confidential marriages are not public record. A copy of the marriage record will only be given to the bride, groom or someone with a court order.

No central database of marriage records

America has 50 states and 3,141 counties. In some jurisdictions marriage records are open for public inspection; in others they are not. In some locations marriage records are computerized, in others they are not. So hiding a marriage is easy—all someone has to do is move, and not tell you where he or she used to live.

There is no nationwide central database of marriage records. The best the federal government can do, through the National Center for Health Statistics, is tell you where to write for vital records.

The vital information that the federal government does collect is limited to statistics. And for this, it depends upon data from the states.

State officials have banded together to form the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems. (NAPHSIS). This organization is primarily focused on information about births, deaths and public health. “We do not exchange data about marriages and divorces,” says Kenneth Beam, executive director of NAPHSIS.

Will the states ever try to share information on marriages? “Marriage records have not come up,” Beam says. “It’s not high on the screen.”

Your ability to search for information about marriages, therefore, is not going to improve anytime soon.

What can you do to search for marriage records?

If you want to search for marriage records, you need someplace to start—previous addresses, possible names of spouses, unidentified phone numbers. But even if you find no marriage records, that is no guarantee that a marriage does not exist.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Know your potential partner. Make sure you meet his or her family, friends, long-term acquaintances—people who know your love interest’s history. If your potential mate doesn’t introduce you to anyone who has known him or her for a long time, be cautious.

2. Take your time. If your beau is nothing but a sociopath looking for a score, he or she will be in a hurry. Any person who is whispering sweet nothings about “love at first sight” is probably in love with your assets.

Next: Is he or she really in the military?