My inquiry started with six “no’s” and ended with a “yes” and a fist bump. What’s the law in California regarding verifying a confidential marriage? And who knows it? Private investigators? Genealogists? County clerks?
The county clerks aren’t equally informed. The San Mateo County Clerk told me that she has never been asked to confirm a record of a confidential marriage. One other clerk told me that he’s received a few phone calls but “they always ask the wrong question.” Apparently, he didn’t go out of his way to be helpful!
San Francisco produces a certified letter stating whether a record was found, for a $15 fee per name. Santa Clara County will confirm by telephone, for a named spouse. It helps if the groom has an unusual name, since that is their preferred party.
Back to San Mateo. I spoke to three clerks before I got to the supervisor. All denied that I could get any information on confidential records. One of the clerks consulted her supervisor and then reported back that a search was not allowed. I met with the office supervisor and told her that there was a State of California law that authorized her to verify the existence of a confidential marriage. To her credit, she sought out an answer by consulting the Family Code. She then asked two other clerks whether they believed that it was legal for them to inform the public of the marriage record. They both said “no,” which is always the right answer when your boss dangles a question that could get you in trouble.
What is the law? California Family Code Section 511(c) reads:
The county clerk may conduct a search for a confidential
marriage certificate for the purpose of confirming the existence of a
marriage, but the date of the marriage and any other information
contained in the certificate shall not be disclosed except upon order
of the court.
Pretty clear, eh?
I guess, in consideration of my generous assistance in bringing this to the clerk’s attention I wasn’t charged a search fee, which is allowable. So, prepare to pay for each name searched. But, if there’s no record on the groom, you won’t have to check for the bride. Unfortunately, if a marriage is confirmed for both names you won’t know if the marriage was to each other, and a confirmation on only one name leaves you wondering who they married.
But, now when you report “no record found” to your client you can also add details on the search for a confidential marriage.
So what was the “correct” question the clerk required? Was there a confidential marriage filed for [name of your party]? Not, can you check if one was filed? Apparently that answer will solicit a “no.”
Also, county clerks are required to maintain a list of the notaries who are approved to issue confidential marriage certificates, and that list is public.