How To Become a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California

Anna Harris

Written by Anna Harris

Marketing Manager | M.Ed in CMHC – William & Mary

Updated & Fact Checked: 05.28.2024

Becoming a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in California is a significant step toward providing vital support to individuals, couples, and families dealing with emotional and psychological challenges. LMFTs focus on understanding relational dynamics and employ various therapy approaches to address issues like emotional discomfort, communication breakdowns, and family dysfunction. In today’s world, their role is crucial in helping people navigate difficult issues and promoting better relationships and general well-being.

LMFTs create a safe and supportive environment for clients to communicate effectively, manage stress, resolve conflicts, and develop coping mechanisms. By addressing the interdependence of relationships, LMFTs promote resilience and mental health, which is particularly important in cases involving divorce, trauma, or mental illness. Their specialized care significantly improves the quality of life for individuals

Importance of LMFTs in supporting individuals, couples, and families

Marriage and Family Therapists can have a gratifying career helping people create better lives. Many people need support while adapting to changes in their lives or family structure. Interpersonal relationships can significantly impact our happiness and mental health. The work that Marriage and Family therapists do to help individuals and families heal their relationships is vital. MFTs are skilled clinicians who have been trained to recognize and treat any mental health disorders that could be contributing to the problem.

To become an MFT in California, you need to have the desire to learn and the commitment to your continued education in the field. Marriage and Family therapy focuses on the inter-relationships between self and the world. MFTs are mental health professionals who offer services such as assessing, diagnosing, and treating mental health disorders. Clients seek an MFT when they require premarital or marital counseling or are coping with a familial transition.

When you choose to become an MFT in California, you embark on a challenging yet rewarding career. MFTs can positively impact their clients, help them form better relationships in their lives, and improve the family dynamic. 

Steps to Becoming an LMFT in California

To become an MFT in California, you must complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field. Then, you would need to obtain a qualifying graduate degree in Marriage and Family therapy, Mental Health Counseling, or a related field of study. While attending this graduate-level program, aspiring MFTs must complete hours of supervised professional experience to develop their expertise. As they approach completion of their graduate degree, MFT candidates must register as Associate Family and Marriage Therapists (AFMT) with the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. Once this is completed, candidates are required to submit their fingerprints and pass the criminal background check, as well as the California Law and Ethics Exam. Only then can candidates accrue supervised experience hours and eventually sit for the LMFT Clinical Exam. Once they have passed this exam, they can apply for a California MFT license. Without an MFT license, you cannot work as a Marriage and Family Therapist in California.

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

The path to MFT licensure starts with a 4-year bachelor’s degree in a field related to psychology. Students can major in related topics, such as mental health, social work, sociology, or psychology. Completing a bachelor’s degree in one of these majors will give you the classes needed to prepare you for graduate-level coursework in marriage and family therapy. However, suppose you received a bachelor’s degree in a course of study unrelated to psychology. In that case, you may still be able to achieve admission to a graduate-level program with some additional coursework. 

A strong bachelor’s degree will allow you to apply to and achieve acceptance into various graduate programs. It should also expose you to conducting and evaluating psychological research. Your bachelor’s degree should include classes that teach you how to read and digest information from psychological journals and research studies. 

A robust program will also advise you on your graduate school options. Students should seek advice from their college or university’s advising department on how to become an MFT in California.

Undergrads looking to work as family and marriage therapists in the future should consider ways to get the most out of their bachelor’s degree studies: 

  • Take a variety of psychology courses to expose yourself to different subfields.
  • Take courses with any professor that has experience working as an MFT in California or another state. 
  • Participate in research projects or as a research assistant to gain hands-on experience and develop critical thinking skills.
  • Seek internships or volunteer work opportunities in mental health or social service settings to gain practical experience and build professional connections.
  • Join student clubs or organizations related to psychology to network with peers and professionals.
  • Meet with an advisor in your department to discuss post-graduation options.

Step 2: Earn a Master’s or Doctoral Degree

After completing your bachelor’s degree, you will need to pursue either a Master’s or Doctoral degree in any of these disciplines: marriage, family, and child counseling, marriage, and family therapy, couple and family therapy, psychology, clinical psychology, counseling psychology, or either counseling or clinical mental health counseling with an emphasis in either marriage, family, and child counseling or marriage and family therapy. It would be best to study at a school approved by the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education, or another regional or national accreditation agency approved by the United States Department of Education. The school should list the accreditation or approval on its website, but if you suspect it is not an accredited program, you should call the admissions office to confirm. 

A master’s degree is generally 45-60 credit hours of courses dedicated to a particular discipline. A doctoral degree is generally 90 credit hours with a dissertation requirement. Most graduate programs will require the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) for admission. The GRE assesses your verbal, mathematical, and reasoning abilities. Graduate admissions counselors review a transcript of your undergraduate coursework and your GRE scores to evaluate your ability to succeed in their program. Here is a full list of master’s in MFT programs offered in the state of California.

Doctoral and Master’s degree programs typically involve coursework in research methods, statistics, psychological assessment, psychopathology, and evidence-based interventions. Additionally, students participate in clinical experiences, such as practicum placements, internships, or externships. These experiences provide opportunities to develop clinical skills and ethical decision-making under the supervision of licensed psychologists.

Doctoral programs can take four to seven years to complete, depending on the program, full-time or part-time status, and individual progress. Master’s degrees often take two to three years of full-time academic study to complete. These programs will thoroughly prepare you for a challenging and rewarding marriage and family therapy career. 

Step 3: Gain Professional Experience

In California, before you can accrue professional experience hours, you must first complete the following steps:

  • Register with the Board of Behavioral Sciences as an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT).
  • Submit your fingerprints to the Department of Justice and the FBI
  • Pass a criminal background check.
  • Take and pass the California Law and Ethics Exam.

After you have completed these steps and have registered as an AFMT, you can begin to accrue Supervised Experience Hours. To qualify for a California MFT license, you need 3,000 supervised experience hours over 104 weeks minimum. You must supply documentation of these hours in the application for licensure and have completed these hours within the last six years. 

Step 4: Apply for Licensure

The next step in obtaining your California MFT license is to complete the Application for Licensure and Examination. You must complete this application and have your supervised experience hours approved to sit for the LMFT Clinical Exam. The application requires the following:

  • $500 check or money order made payable to the California Board of Behavioral Sciences.
  • Experience Verification Form: to document your hours of supervised experience.
  • Proof of specific coursework as outlined in the application. This requirement only applies to individuals who began coursework before 2012 and graduated from a program before 2018.
  • Proof of Suicide Risk Assessment and Intervention Training.
  • Submit a Request for Initial License Issuance.

Step 5: Pass the Required Exams

One of the most critical steps to becoming an MFT in California is passing the two required exams. You must pass the California Law and Ethics exam before starting your Supervised Experience Hours. The next and final exam you must pass to become a MFT in California is the Licensed Family and Marriage Therapist (LFMT) Clinical Exam. The California Board of Behavioral Sciences offers information regarding the test on its website. You can find an outline of the exam as well as a Candidate Handbook to assist you with test preparation. The test consists of six sections, each dedicated to a different facet of Marriage and Family Therapy:

  1. Clinical Evaluation: This area assesses the candidate’s ability to evaluate information about the systems in which clients function and how these systems relate to the mental health and well-being of individuals, couples, and families across the lifespan.
  2. Developing a Diagnostic Impression: This area assesses the candidate’s ability to evaluate mental health disorders and emotional problems that impact the interpersonal and relationship functioning of individuals, couples, and families. 
  3. Managing Crisis Situations: This section assesses the candidate’s ability to evaluate and manage situations that require immediate or intensive intervention.
  4. Case Conceptualization and Planning: Questions in this section will determine the candidate’s ability to formulate treatment plans and create goals.
  5. Treatment: this area aims to assess how well the candidate can implement interventions and improve interpersonal functioning.
  6. Managing Legal and Ethical Obligations within the Therapeutic Relationship: This area assesses the candidate’s ability to act professionally to prevent gross harm or negligence. 

Step 6: Obtain Your California License

Upon successfully fulfilling all prerequisites and achieving the required examination scores, you will be reviewed by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences for a California MFT License. Once you have been approved and have officially become an LMFT, you can begin your fulfilling career.

With a license, you can work across various settings, including educational institutions, healthcare facilities, private practices, and government organizations. This flexibility allows you to cater to the mental health needs of diverse populations, providing essential services such as psychological assessment, diagnosis, and therapeutic interventions for various mental health concerns. 

As a licensed MFT in California, you will contribute to your clients’ well-being and play a pivotal role in shaping the broader mental health landscape through advocacy, research, and collaboration with fellow professionals. As you engage in coursework for Continuing Education credits in the field and continually hone your skills, you can ensure that you provide the highest quality care, contribute to the profession’s ongoing development, and stay current on mental health and psychological research. 

Step 7: Maintain Your Licensure in California

To continue to work in California, MFTs must pay a small fee to renew their license every two years and complete 36 Continuing Education (CE) credits. Included within the CE credits is a requirement of six hours of education devoted to law and ethics. All Marriage and Family Therapists should carry liability insurance requiring them to maintain their license in good standing. 

Once you are licensed, pay close attention to your Continuing Education requirements and make sure you are taking credits from a provider approved by the Board of Behavioral Sciences. The Board does periodic audits of CE requirements, and you will face a fine if your courses have not met the requirements. A mistake like that could put your California MFT license in jeopardy. 

Marriage and Family Therapists are a vital part of the mental health community. By following this comprehensive guide, engaging in ongoing professional development, and staying committed to ethical practice, you can build a successful career as a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California, making a lasting impact on the lives of others.