The happiest, most love-filled annex of the John Marshall Courthouse. 

License for Love

"Marriage," reads the gray sign hanging over Janie Cosby's corner in Room 101.

The word, and the small desk underneath, possess none of the pomp and circumstance of a white dress or tolling bells. But this is it. The real deal.

If you want to get hitched in Richmond, Cosby is the one to see. She'll issue the documents you need to make the ring and honeymoon legit.

The official marriage license is nothing as fancy as the handwritten documents from the 1870s the office keeps in its files. It's just a simple black-and-white form in language more legal than poetic.

"To any person licensed to perform marriages: You are hereby authorized to join the above-named persons in marriage under procedure outlined in the statutes of the Commonwealth of Virginia."

Aww, how sweet.

Well, you might be surprised by how excited some people get about that license, Cosby says. Kissing, hugging, oblivious to the world. She makes a little gagging sound, then grins. She's kidding.

"We just love it," Cosby says, especially when her corner overflows with a whole wedding party on its way to the ceremony. "Bridesmaids, little kids and everything," she says. "They just look so good."

The office is quiet at 3:30 p.m., one week before Valentine's Day. Five couples came through today — "I think I had three here at one time," she says. "I try to take them one at a time and not try to rush anybody."

Young lovebirds are often impatient to get going, license in hand. Especially around V-Day, Cosby says — last year 10 to 15 couples showed up every day that week. And this year she expects it'll be no different. To keep up with the rush, "I'll probably have to take off my heels and put on my tennis shoes," Cosby says.

The process is pretty easy, she says. No blood tests or background checks in the Richmond office — just a statement under oath that any previous marriages have been terminated. A few forms to fill out: pink for the bride and blue for the groom. Thirty dollars — cash only. And they're done.

"The majority of them are very happy," Cosby says, a smile lighting her face. "A lot of them are excited. Very excited." Well, most of the time. "On occasion, they will argue over who's going to pay the 30 bucks," says Bevill M. Dean, the clerk who oversees the Chancery Court.

Another problem is the little box on the form marked "Number of this marriage." A few soon-to-be newlyweds stare at that part with trepidation, Dean says, "because they haven't yet shared with the person they're marrying the number that's going to go in that box." Once, he says, a man filled out his form, left with his fiancee and rushed back inside a minute later. "I need to change the number," the man pleaded.

Dean frowns upon such fibbing. The marriage-license procedure is no less serious than any other court routine, he says, and lying under oath is no joke.

In Virginia, you must be 18 to get married without parental consent, so proof of age is required of applicants. Unless, of course, they're in their upper 70s, like the oldest couple Dean remembers. But even they were not spared the pamphlets on sexually-transmitted diseases and birth control that Cosby is required to hand out.

"You have to give that to everyone," Dean says, "it doesn't matter the age. The older couples tend to chuckle at it."

They inquire, "What do we need this for?" Cosby says.

Don't ask the same question about the license. "You have to get your marriage license," Cosby says firmly.

The marriage ceremony itself is, legally speaking, a ritual, and without the license is not legally binding. Still, it must be performed for a marriage to be valid. Licenses to marry can be obtained in a courthouse anywhere in the state, as long as one of the parties is a Virginia resident.

Couples hurry through her office, but they sometimes dawdle before completing the ceremony once the forms are filled out, Cosby says. "They think they can get the marriage license and do it whenever."

That's not the case. After she signs the paper, a couple has 60 days to get married. It doesn't matter where, she says, whether a church, chapel, temple, "or if they do it outside on the steps" — just as long as an official who's registered in Virginia performs the ceremony. After the officiant signs the certificate, it returns to Cosby and gets filed away. That's it. Her duties, thankfully, don't include enforcing the "till death do us part" clause.

Cosby has had her job for about a year now. She applied for a court clerk position, she says, not knowing what duties she'd have — and got lucky. "She was just in the right place at the right time — and had the right personality," Dean says.

That's easy to see in Cosby's gentle smile. She's patient, that's for sure, even when people forget how to spell their mother's maiden name or whine about paying the fees. "I do like my job," she says. "Everyone always says, 'You have the easy job.' I say, 'No. I have the happy job.'"

"Because it is supposed to be a happy time," adds Dean. "Even for those who are here for the fourth or fifth or sixth time."

Cosby herself is not married — "unfortunately not," she says with a grin. "That's probably why they stuck me here."

"It's probably not the best place to meet candidates," Dean acknowledges. But hey — who knows where true love will appear?


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