When It’s Legal to Have a Friend Officiate Your Wedding, and When It’s Not

This article courtesy of Avvo NakedLaw blog

“By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you …”

Have you ever wondered what that means, what the power is, and who exactly has done the vesting?

These aren’t just pretty words, but legal ones. Only certain people are legally recognized to perform a wedding ceremony and make a marriage legal. And to make it trickier, requirements change from state to state and even from county to county. Read on to learn the basics about how to make sure your “I do” is legal.

Judges, ministers and more

For nonreligious ceremonies, justices of the peace, court clerks and active and retired judges may officiate the marriage. Certain states, like South Carolina and Maine, also accept notaries public as officiants.

For religious ceremonies, members of the clergy like priests, ministers or rabbis, et cetera, may officiate a marriage. They may need to register with the county in which the wedding will take place, especially if it’s out of state. Shamans, medicine men and other leaders may be able to perform religious marriages in Native American communities.

Contrary to popular belief, boat captains are not able to perform a legal wedding ceremony just by virtue of being a captain. They must be given the authority in some other way.

Ordained by the Internet

If you want a friend or relative to officiate your wedding but they are not already a member of the clergy or an accepted public official, never fear. There are options.

Some states grant authority to perform a wedding ceremony to any adult. These states include California, which will deputize someone for a day, and Massachusetts, which grants permission through the governor.

And the large majority of states recognize people who have been ordained by a religious group on the Internet to perform a ceremony. Many nondenominational and interfaith groups, like the Universal Life Church or American Fellowship Church, will ordain officiants online and send credentials immediately. Some groups require a fee, and some not; some require extensive paperwork, while others just a simple application.

A small number of states may not recognize marriages performed by ministers from such groups. But someone who is ordained in a state that doesn’t recognize such marriages may still perform marriages in a state that does recognize them.

Before your chosen officiant goes through becoming ordained online, check with the county clerk of the county where the wedding will take place to make sure that jurisdiction accepts online certification. The Universal Life Church reports that sometimes county clerks deny marriage licenses even when they have no legal reason to do so. Also check to see whether the ordination has a time limit; you do not want to find that your officiant is no longer able to officiate a wedding because the expiration date has passed.

Double-checking your “I do”

If you are planning on getting married, make sure that your plans will result in a legal, binding marriage. Start with some online research into state marriage laws, and then go a step further and call the county clerk in the county where the wedding will take place. If necessary, double-check that the person you’ve chosen to officiate is accepted in that state and county and has been authorized.

As for the ceremony itself, to be legal, it must include a declaration of intent. That’s the part where the officiant asks the couple, “Do you take so-and-so … ?” and each party responds, “I do.” Make sure that’s incorporated into the proceedings.

Finally, get the marriage license taken care of. How soon before the wedding do you need to get it? How soon after the wedding must you file it? Again, this is something you can double-check with the county clerk.

Washington (Seattle) Regulations:

Chapter 26.04 of the Revised Code of Washington states that justices, judges and certain kinds of commissioners may solemnize marriages, as can regularly licensed or ordained members of the clergy. That includes individuals who are ordained through churches online.

What happens if you allow a friend to officiate, but it turns out he was not authorized?

“There is a strong presumption that when two persons go through apparently proper procedures to be married that they are legally married to each other,” says family law attorney Thuong-Tri Nguyen of Renton, Washington. “So, if your friend tells you that [he or she] is legally authorized to officiate wedding, but it later turns out the friend is not an authorized officiant, you likely still have a legal marriage if the friend's authority as an officiant is the only issue.”

Chapter 26.04.060 says as much, stating that as long as the marrying couple believes they were being lawfully married, their marriage shall not be considered void.

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