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

Jessica White

Written by Jessica White

Community Mental Health Worker & Case Manager

Updated & Fact Checked: 4/1/2024

Licensed marriage and family therapists are mental health professionals that specialize in helping families, individuals, couples, and children through complex issues that can arise within family systems via their knowledge of psychotherapeutic practices. LMFTs are necessary to help many families and individuals recover who have experienced traumatic events or mental health struggles. Due to LMFTs knowledge and the effectiveness of their work, they enjoy the opportunity of a career that is in high demand in many locations. Because of handling difficult subject matter, LMFTs can sometimes experience stress in their work, but it is ultimately rewarding for many within the field because of the help and healing they are able to provide.

What does an LMFT Do?

Licensed marriage and family therapists are responsible for providing legal, ethical, and individualized mental health care to their clients to help them with their goals. The population that LMFTs might work with can range in age from very young children to the elderly, those who are disabled and/or ill, people experiencing addiction, and many other populations. Some therapists may specialize in one population or another, but many start out by gaining experience with as many different kinds of clients as possible. Therefore, LMFTs have to go through a rigorous education that prepares them for any situation that may arise. This is also the importance of LMFTs earning a license. The license is proof that they have met the requirements of their state board. Some more of the issues that an LMFT is able to address may include:

  • Mental health struggles such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety.
  • Autism, ADHD, and working with those in neurodivergent relationships.
  • Marital and family issues, such as divorce, separation, family conflict, and domestic violence.
  • Child abuse and trauma, including kids in foster care, and helping adopted families learn to adjust.
  • Emotional struggles of those experiencing chronic illness or pain.
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia, binge eating, and bulimia.
  • Substance abuse, addiction, and recovery, including reconnecting with family and coming up with alternative coping mechanisms.
  • Autism, which is frequently misunderstood, even by many medical professionals.

LMFTs don’t just see clients, however. They also have a lot of administrative work to keep up on to maintain the workings of their office and to protect their clients. They must ensure that their clients’ information is safe with up-to-date and private files, and they also work on documenting client progress. They spend time working with insurance companies for billing purposes and to ensure they receive payments. Other duties include marketing their therapy practice, if they work for themselves. Additionally, LMFTs spend time attending continuing education courses to stay up-to-date on the best treatment options and information for their clients. LMFTs might provide case management to their clients in some cases, meaning that they provide them with resources to other services, and even coordinate their client’s care. Therapists also do a lot of writing and research. An LMFT may also be qualified to take on supervisory roles, such as a clinical director at an agency, or they can go into management or high-level administration.

Why are LMFTs Important?

Many people experience family issues, trauma, and mental illness across their lifetime. Luckily, licensed marriage and family therapists are trained to handle the diverse ways that these issues can present within families. Research shows that patients are satisfied with their therapy services when provided by LMFTs. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) states that marriage and family therapy is effective because it is solution focused, designed with “the end in mind”, and specific, with therapeutic goals that are actually attainable, so clients feel empowered and able to actually accomplish what they started.

The AAMFT also states that over 98% of clients are reportedly very satisfied with their services. The clients in the studies who went through marriage and family therapy found that their emotional health improved, but also, so did their physical health. Others found that their functioning at work got better, and those in marriages found that their relationships improved. Children who were receiving therapy began to behave better at school, including getting along better with other kids and doing better with classwork.

So, LMFTs are important to not just the individual, but also to help societies as a whole function better. When individuals feel better emotionally and physically, they will do better at work and school, which has been proven in the studies mentioned above. Because LMFTs are important, it’s important to note that they also must be an example by taking care of themselves and engage in work to prevent themselves from experiencing compassion fatigue, so they can continue to take care of others.

Steps to Become an LMFT

If you want to be a part of the helping profession and have decided that a licensed marriage and family therapist is the best career for you, then you might be wondering how to become an LMFT. The first thing to know is that becoming an LMFT does have many steps involved, and takes quite a bit of commitment, but the ultimate goal is to ensure that you are prepared for the rewarding role of helping families and individuals through the mental health and interpersonal problems that they may be facing. Becoming an LMFT involves earning first a bachelors degree, and then a masters degree. Besides those, you will also get real world experience, then apply your knowledge by taking an exam to become licensed. Here, we will outline specifics about the process of how to become a marriage and family therapist.

  • Earn your bachelor’s degree. Before applying for a master’s degree program, you will need to obtain a BA degree. Ideally, the degree should be in something that will help you succeed in the future masters-level coursework. Relevant degrees might include psychology, social work, sociology, or counseling. The important part of this step is that you will want to maintain a GPA of 2.0, and ideally, above, which will increase the chances of getting into the program. You will need to complete 60 semester units.
  • Once you have graduated with your bachelor’s degree, or a little before, you may begin the process of applying for the master’s in marriage and family therapy program (LMFT Degree) of your choice. Because these programs are competitive, applying for more than one can be a good idea. Each university might have different requirements for their application, but they do have some similarities, which might be:
    1. An essay, often a personal statement. Each university will provide the prompt, and sometimes, there are options of what you may write about.
    2. A professional resume. Some universities may require educational experience, others might want work experience, and some may want a combination of both.
    3. Letters of recommendation from professional references (2-4 is the average).
    4. An interview with the university.
  • Sometimes, there may be additional prerequisites required by your program. It may be possible to complete those requirements ahead of time while you are completing your bachelor’s degree.

Note: Some schools require students to take the GRE (graduate record exam) to be admitted into the master’s degree graduate program. However, that practice is required less and less and universities are beginning to take on a more “holistic” approach to considering students, as exams are not always the best way to tell if someone is prepared or passionate about a certain career.

Once you have been admitted into the marriage and family therapy graduate program, it will take about two to three years before you reach graduation. Two years is standard, but some programs allow for three for those who can only go on an alternate schedule. Courses within the LMFT program are broad, and universities want to provide students with the best tools to prepare for their careers in therapy, as well as critical thinking, analysis, and decision making skills. As a student, you will also learn about legal and ethical standards that you should follow to protect your clients and yourself.

The coursework in your marriage and family therapy master’s program may include:

  • Marriage and family therapy theory
  • Cross-cultural considerations
  • Human sexuality
  • Research methods
  • Case Management
  • Psychopathology
  • Trauma-informed care
  • Professional career development for therapists
  • Group therapy
  • Social justice
  • Childhood trauma

How to Get Your MFT License

Around graduation from your master’s degree program, you can expect to want to register as an AMFT, an associate marriage and family therapist. During this registration process, you will likely have to get your fingerprints taken and a criminal background check done.

Registering as an AMFT means that you will be able to fulfill the next step towards becoming an LMFT: getting your supervised experience hours. In just about every state, potential LMFTs must work under the supervision of a licensed mental health professional to get real world experience of working with clients with support of someone else who has gone through the process themselves. This means that you will be able to take any issues you come across and work with your supervisor about how to solve them in the future. Each state has different requirements for how many supervised hours are required.

Each state has different programs through which you can apply as an AMFT and take your MFT exam once you have completed your hours of experience. The Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards recommends that students preparing to take the LMFT exam to become licensed prepare by looking through the Handbook for Candidates.

Requirements To Become an MFT by State

Every state has unique requirements to become an MFT. The following articles provide a more in-depth analysis on specific requirements for some of the larger states.

MFT Requirements in California
MFT Requirements in Florida

LMFT Pay and Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the median annual wage for a licensed marriage and family therapist was $49,880 in 2021. LMFTs have an excellent job outlook through 2021 at 14 percent (which is higher than average), with 6,400 job openings projected each year.

It’s important to note that the wage can vary significantly depending on where the therapist decides to work. For example, the average wage for someone working for the state government in 2021 was about $77,690. Meanwhile, someone working in a position for outpatient care centers may expect to make $57,930 on average. Additionally, the wages might depend on the state. As of 2022, the average wage was $81,616 in California, while it was $59,701 in Texas.

Careers That Are Similar to LMFTs

There are a lot of careers that sound similar to licensed marriage and family therapists, but vary in small ways. Some of these careers are listed below.

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): Much like an LMFT, this career is a master’s level profession that involves providing mental health care to individuals, families, couples, and children. The main difference is that an LCSW spends a significant amount of time also doing case management, meaning that they connect their clients to other resources. Another difference is that focus more on mental health issues in school as opposed to relationship issues.
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC): An LPC is an interesting career because it focuses on big-picture subjects, such as community and organizational issues. They may spend time working in nonprofits and advocating for social justice issues. However, they also have training in mental health subjects as well, and their schooling helps them focus on the cause of the issues that people are experiencing. LMFTs, on the other hand, focus on family dynamics and how they may lead to mental health struggles.
  • Psychologist: This type of mental health professional is similar to an LMFT in that those who are in this career can provide therapy. However, this career differs because people who practice it usually must earn their PhD, thus qualifying them to test and diagnose their clients with various mental health conditions such as autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. Psychologists are sometimes in even higher demand than LMFTs due to this ability to test clients for conditions.

Resources for LMFTs

Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)

MFT Licensing Boards

LMFT Resources