How to become a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) receive comprehensive training in family counseling and individual psychotherapy models. They help individuals, families, couples and groups by using their training in listening, assessing and demonstrating practical interventions to improve quality of life and relationships. Becoming an LMFT may be the right option for you if you are passionate about helping people navigate dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors to overcome obstacles in their marriages and personal family relationships so they may live happier, more fulfilling lives.

Whether you choose to earn a master’s or doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy, you may have the option of completing your education online. Many students find that distance learning offers them the flexibility and affordability they desire.

The program cards/tables featured on this page were last updated in April 2022. For the most current program information, please refer to the official website of the respective school.  

Pepperdine University’s Online MFT Master’s Program

Pepperdine prepares you to pursue licensure as an LMFT or LPC, allowing you to make a powerful impact in the lives of others in as few as 27 months. With no GRE required, apply to the master’s in marriage and family therapy online from Pepperdine and begin creating a positive social impact. Part-time track available.

  • No GRE required
  • Bachelor degree required
  • Complete as few as 27 months


Find out more about pathways to become a marriage and family counselor and about marriage and family therapist certification below.

How to become a marriage and family therapist

To pursue a career in marriage and family therapy, some students may choose to obtain a master’s degree in marriage and family therapyTraining may include completing coursework focused on psychotherapeutic theory and pursuing clinical graduate and postgraduate supervised hours of practice.

Individual state requirements will vary and are subject to change, including licensure standards, exam eligibility, and appropriate pathways, and may differ based on individual student backgrounds. Students should do their own due diligence and determine the appropriate pathway and license type for themselves.

Here are some common steps you may take to become a marriage and family therapist:

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree

While some marriage and family therapy students major in counseling, psychology, social work or sociology during their undergraduate studies, therapists come from all different backgrounds and areas of study. 

If you’re considering entering the therapy field, be sure to check the prerequisite requirements of the programs in which you are interested in applying. Some marriage and family therapy graduate degree programs will accept any major, provided you have completed specific courses in subjects like therapy, group therapy and psychotherapy. 

Fieldwork or practical experiences in the field may also help display to schools your interest in the therapy profession.

Both private and public universities offer marriage and family therapy programs. It can be useful for prospective MFT students to consider schools approved by the state licensure board in the state they wish to practice (for a full list, see step 5). Additionally, they may consider schools accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) or the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) during their application process. These accreditations provide specific quality standards. Some states may require aspiring MFTs to complete a program that is accredited by COAMFTE or CACPEP. Be sure to check with your state licensure board for more information.

A full-time student typically completes a master’s program in two to three years. This factors in clinical practice, which gives students practical experience in the field under the supervision of a practicing professional. Some master’s degree programs also require candidates to complete a thesis. 

Below are two typical counseling degree programs a prospective marriage and family therapist may want to consider on the way to becoming a professional.

Marriage and family therapy 

The Master of Marriage and Family Therapy or Master of Psychology are popular degree options for this field. 

As a master’s student, you can learn techniques to provide psychotherapy to individuals, couples and families. 

While working toward an MFT degree, you may learn about the needs of various groups and train how to diagnose mental health disorders. You’ll also be taught when a clinician is ethically obligated to refer a client to another professional. 

COAMFTE is the nationally accepted accreditor for MFT programs and requires the following foundational curriculum areas for master’s degrees: 

  1. Foundations of Relational/Systemic Practice, Theories Models 
  2. Clinical Treatment with Individuals, Couples and Families
  3. Diverse, Multicultural and/or Underserved Communities 
  4. Research & Evaluation 
  5. Professional Identity, Law, Ethics & Social Responsibility
  6. Biopsychosocial Health & Development Across the Life Span
  7. Systemic/Relational Assessment & Mental Health Diagnosis and Treatment
  8. Contemporary Issues
  9. Community Intersections & Collaboration

Additionally, COAMFTE requires a Foundation Practice Component in the form of a supervised internship.

Earn an MA in Psychology Online from Pepperdine

Pepperdine University’s online Master of Arts in Psychology program prepares students to pursue doctoral study or a career in human services.

  • Open to all undergrad majors
  • No GRE required 
  • Can be completed in about 18 months


Mental health counseling

Another track to working in marriage and family therapy is a master’s in mental health counseling degree. Mental health counselors help with the behavioral, emotional and mental health concerns of different populations by using of assessment, crisis management, psychotherapy, therapeutic support and treatment planning.

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), which accredits degree programs in counseling and its specialties, requires mental health counseling students to take courses in the following areas:

  1. Professional Counseling Orientation and Ethical Practice
  2. Social and Cultural Diversity
  3. Human Growth and Development
  4. Career Development
  5. Counseling and Helping Relationships
  6. Group Counseling and Group Work
  7. Assessment and Testing
  8. Research and Program Evaluation

CACREP also requires a field experience component.

Applicants should look for a mental health counseling program that has MFT components added into the curriculum. Otherwise, the degree may not be recognized for licensure.

3. Complete additional hours of supervised clinical experience

After graduation, passing the appropriate state examinations and, meeting additional state requirements, students may also need to obtain an initial license. This allows the graduate to be supervised by a licensed independent practitioner in post-degree practice and can be thought of as a temporary professional license. The name of this license may vary by state and include Marriage and Family Therapist Associate, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate and Associate Marriage and Family Therapist.

The number of hours needed for this varies by state, but the typical amount of required post-master’s counseling is between 2,000 and 4,000 hours before taking the exam. The hours may be divided into certain categories such as direct contact, indirect contact and face-to-face supervision. These hours will be required to be met over a certain period of time.

Check with your state to determine the requirements you will need to fulfill.

4. Pass the required licensing exams

All states along with the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico require potential marriage and family therapists to pass the Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) National Examination as offered by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Board (AMFTRB). 

In order for a student to sit for the exam, they must first receive approval from the state in which they wish to be licensed. Once the written approval is received, the student can contract AMFTRB to register and sit for the exam. 

Applicants may also be required to pass state-specific examinations, though this will vary by state.

5. Apply for licensure

Next, you need to apply for a marriage and family therapy license in your state. This will be considered as an independent practice license. The most common independent licensure credential is Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), but this may depend on the state.

Specific licensing requirements vary between states, so check the list below about who to contact, the cost of licenses and more details you might need to know in each state. 

Here are the state professional counselor licensure boards:

6. Complete continuing education

To maintain licensing, counselors may be required to complete continuing education (CE) hours. These courses provide professional improvement, keep counselors up to date on new field developments, increase career mobility and sometimes offer networking opportunities. 

As with licensing, state boards control CE requirements. Required hours vary by state, but each clearly outlines its specifications.  

Online CE courses may also meet these state requirements. The online options also may allow more scheduling flexibility, though states may limit the number of online CE hours you may take. Check with your state counseling board for the most current information on CE requirements. Here are a few CE resources for you to explore.

  • American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy: Courses offered by this professional organization help meet the needs of mental health professionals and may be accessed, started, paused, and completed at any time. Continuing education requirements for maintaining licensure may be achieved through this site.
  • Aspira Continuing Education: This firm offers online continuing education courses for licensed marriage and family therapists in most states. Check your state’s requirements to see if Aspira’s courses qualify for CE.
  • Professional Development Resources: This company provides marriage and family therapy continuing education courses. Online, video and audio courses are available.
  • PSEI: This nonprofit offers CE with live seminars and online training, along with books, CDs and DVDs. Check with your state to see if PSEI’s courses qualify for continuing education certification.
  • The Gottman Institute: This organization offers training for mental health professionals, including CE for marriage and family therapists. Live training and online courses are available. 

What does a marriage and family therapist do?

Marriage and family therapists help people manage and overcome problems with family and in their other relationships. In essence, MFTs apply psychotherapeutic techniques to foster growth and satisfaction within intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics.

According to the BLS, MFTs have the following typical responsibilities:

  • Complete and maintain confidential files and mandated records.
  • Encourage clients to discuss their experiences and emotions.
  • Guide clients toward making decisions about their future.
  • Help clients develop skills and strategies to change their behavior and cope with difficult situations.
  • Help clients adjust to changes and process their reactions to difficulties such as divorce and layoffs.
  • Refer clients to other services or resources in the community, such as inpatient treatment facilities or support groups.

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, marriage and family therapists tend to provide brief, specific and focused therapy. AAMFT also notes that short-term clinical treatment is common, with 66% of therapies concluding within 20 sessions and 88% concluding within 50 sessions. MFTs as a profession are treating more than 1.8 million Americans at any given time. 

Marriage and family therapy professionals are expected to have some important skills, including the following:

  • Communication. A great majority of counseling requires clear communication between the counselor and their clients. Being able to educate clients about treatment processes and treatment plans requires effective understanding of verbal and non-verbal communication. Counselors often work with people who are dealing with stressful and difficult situations in their marriages and relationships, so they must demonstrate compassion and be able to empathize. 
  • Critical Thinking. Counselors make diagnoses, implement therapy models and conduct research with clients by combining communication and active listening. 
  • Interpersonal Skills. Counselors work with different types of people. They spend most of their time working directly with clients and other professionals and must be able to encourage good relationships.
  • Listening. Being an active listener is a crucial skill for counselors so they can best understand and untangle the concerns and needs of their clients. Counselors will learn what language to listen for and how to identify what isn’t being said. 
  • Organization. Counselors in private practice must work with insurance companies and keep track of payments. 
  • Problem-Solving. Working through complicated issues is a key part of helping clients solve problems in their own lives or with others.
  • Research. Studying patients and their behavioral patterns is a part of the counselor’s role, learned through classes and clinical residencies. 

Licensure requirements for marriage and family therapists 

While each state differs in its specific requirements and guidelines for licensure, therapists must typically complete 2,000 to 4,000 documented hours providing clinical services. These hours must be completed under an approved supervisor who is a licensed marriage and family therapist, licensed clinical social worker, licensed professional clinical counselor or licensed psychologist. To receive licensure, therapists must complete all necessary education courses and clinical hours and pass the individual state board exams, though specific requirements will depend on the state you wish to practice in. Be sure to check with the state board.

Once licensed, MFTs must adhere to all regulations outlined by their board and accrue continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain active status within their roles.

Certifications for marriage and family therapists 

MFTs may choose from numerous certificates, workshops and advanced training to enhance their career outlook and professional expertise. Extended learning also may help to acquire knowledge in evidence-based practices, specialize in a particular niche or population or fulfill job requirements.

Some certification examples include: 

Career outlook for marriage and family therapists 

There were 71, 200 employed MFTs in 2022, according to the BLS. Employment of marriage and family therapists is projected to grow 15% from 2022 to 2032, much faster than the average for all occupations. Health insurance reforms and expanded insurance coverage for mental health care will likely impact this increase.

The MFT career tends to be both flexible and versatile in terms of employment industries. MFT workplaces include:

  • General medical hospitals
  • Mental health clinics
  • Military or Veterans Affairs settings
  • Offices of other health care professionals
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Private practice
  • Public or private schools and universities
  • Religious organizations
  • Residential care facilities
  • State-funded clinics and services
  • State government

Currently, the states with the highest employment levels of MFTs are California, New Jersey, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Tennessee with metropolitan, urban areas having the highest saturation of available positions. The mean annual salary for an MFT is $68,730. On average, as of May 2023, positions with home health care services pay the highest at an annual average of $122,120 and other residential care facilities pay the lowest at around $50,400 per year. The highest paying states are New Jersey, Maryland, Utah, Virginia and Alaska.


What is marriage and family counseling?

Marriage and family counseling treats not just a single person but the relationships they have in their immediate family, even if only one person is being treated. Marriage and family counseling, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, is brief, solution focused, specific with attainable goals and designed with the “end in mind.” 

How long does it take to become a marriage and family therapist?

According to U.S. News & World Report, most MFT degree programs take full-time students two to three years to complete due to the number of clinical hours and different settings needed to prove competency as a therapist. In that time, you will learn to master the fundamentals of counseling to be prepared for work in your own private practice or setting of choice.

How much does a marriage and family therapist make? 

Marriage and family therapists earn $56,660 per year, according to the BLS. MFT employment is projected to grow 16% from 2020 to 2030, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. Some of this growth is expected because of an increasing use of teams for treatment as counselors work together to address patients’ needs.

What is an MFT license?

Licenses for MFTs certify that they’re permitted to practice in a state and are issued by each state regulatory board. Prior to becoming a fully licensed marriage and family therapist, graduates of a program need to obtain an initial license. This allows the graduate to be supervised by a licensed independent practitioner in post-graduate practice and can be thought of as a temporary professional license. After obtaining the initial license, graduates will need to take additional steps to earn their independent practice license, typically including completion of a specific number of hours under the supervision of a licensed independent practitioner, though the requirements will vary by state.

Why become a marriage and family therapist?

Families and married people struggle even under the best of circumstances. When these people need help, a trained professional may be the best route. If you want to help families that are hurting, becoming a marriage and family therapist may be right for you. An MFT will have a dedicated commitment to improving the lives of their clients and show a strong sense of empathy and compassion.  

What degree do you need to become a marriage and family therapist? 

The main degree held by MFTs is a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy. There are other degrees that may lead to an MFT career, including a Master of Mental Health Counseling, psychology or a related field, though it may depend on the state you wish to practice in. Whatever degree plan you choose, state licensure must be obtained to begin counseling and it is recommended to check with your state board for more information.  

Last updated June 2024

Earn an MA in Psychology Online from Pepperdine

Pepperdine University’s online Master of Arts in Psychology program prepares students to pursue doctoral study or a career in human services.

  • Open to all undergrad majors
  • No GRE required 
  • Can be completed in about 18 months