Who Can Officiate My Wedding?

Couples increasingly use a close friend or family member to officiate their weddings. It's special when someone who knows the couple and is happy for them is part of the wedding day. This is particularly true for those loved ones who witness the wedding. 

But the last thing a couple wants to worry about on their big day is the legal requirements associated with the marriage. So, how do you get a friend who is neither a religious leader nor a county clerk to officiate your wedding? This article explains what you need to know.

State and Local Marriage Officiant Laws Vary

Each state has its own state laws and family laws for officiating a marriage. This means the requirements will vary according to what state and county you are in when you marry. These laws will include who can officiate the marriage ceremony — "solemnization." It will also tell how someone can become a recognized officiant.

Before getting married, it is a good idea to check with the city clerk's or county clerk's office. This will help ensure you know the full ins and outs of getting married. You will also better understand how to get a marriage license and the waiting period before getting married. The county clerk can also explain when you would receive the certified copy of the marriage certificate. The marriage certificate is often issued after the wedding.

The good news is that, typically, the requirements are not onerous. But checking local laws and getting married by a recognized wedding officiant remains prudent.

If a friend who isn't a recognized officiant officiates your ceremony, some jurisdictions could challenge your marital status.

Other states allow a notary public to perform marriage ceremonies, such as South Carolina. But in New York City, a notary public is not allowed to perform marriage ceremonies.

How To Become a Religious or Civil Marriage Officiant

Generally, states recognize two types of marriage officiants: religious and civil. All states allow an authorized person in good standing of any religious denomination to solemnize marriages or religious ceremonies.

One can become a religious wedding officiant in various ways. Included among them is online ordination. Various ministries offer this service.

It's important to know that no matter who leads the wedding, the couple has to fill out a marriage certificate. They need to follow the rules of the place where the wedding happened. In essence, it's crucial to secure a marriage certificate regardless of having a religious or civil ceremony. The exception is common-law marriage, but many states no longer recognize common-law marriages.

The government believes the marriage certificate is an important part of any wedding. That determines a legal marriage, not the person who marries you.

How To Become a Religious Officiant

States do not mandate that marriage officiants be of a certain religious organization or denomination; that would be unconstitutional. Nor do they require you to get married by a certain member of the clergy. But, some states limit who they recognize as a religious officiant.

For instance, Tennessee recognizes ministers ordained through a "deliberate and responsible process."

Then in New York State, ordination certificates issued by Universal Life Church are not accepted as evidence of clerical authority.

In most states, anyone can easily become an ordained minister. Just go through an online service that allows anyone to become a minister of the organization by filling out a form. These services, which may or may not charge a fee, will ordain anyone regardless of personal beliefs. Most states will recognize someone ordained online as a valid religious officiant.

How To Become a Civil Officiant

Are you interested in a civil wedding (a non-religious marriage)? Civil officiants are typically justices of the peace for the county government. In some places, a retired judge can also officiate weddings. But several other government officials may already be qualified to officiate the wedding. For example, members of Congress can usually officiate weddings. If you are close friends or family to a federal or state judge, they can also officiate wedding ceremonies.

A friend or family member may also become a civil officiant by being "deputized" by a county clerk or judge. In some places, the person leading the wedding is given special permission for that day and just that wedding. They must get this permission again if they want to lead another wedding. Check with the local county clerk's office for details if this is the route you want to go.

Does the Marriage Officiant Need To Say Anything Specific?

There are cultural, religious, and community traditions surrounding marriage, which is why we so often hear the exact words spoken during a marriage ceremony. But no magic words must be said to make a marriage legal. Marriage officiants and couples can say whatever they want during the ceremony. It does not affect the marriage's legal status. You may want to stick to the usual ceremony script, but you are under no legal obligation to.

According to marriage laws in most states, the important thing is the marriage license application is filed accurately. It is also important to follow the waiting period after issuing a marriage license before you get married. The waiting period may vary in every state. For instance, some may require one day while others require three days or more.

The county clerk's office may also ask the couple to submit identification documents, such as a birth certificate, driver's license, etc., to prove the person's identity.

Still, no set words, wedding vows, or oaths need to be spoken.

Other Legal Issues To Consider

While becoming an officiant is usually a straightforward process, sometimes legal hiccups can arise during wedding planning. For example, you cannot already be legally married and marry someone else. If your future spouse is legally separated but not divorced, they must divorce before the state recognizes a new marriage.

Religious officiants often counsel and advise the couple before marriage. During this process, you may consider a prenuptial agreement. A prenuptial agreement can make legal separation and divorce a much smoother process, as the couple has already agreed on certain basic matters, such as property division if they split. A prenuptial agreement is also helpful in protecting ownership in a small business and other financial assets.

If you have questions about legal marriage requirements in your state or whether a prenuptial agreement is right for you, contact a local family law attorney to discuss the specifics of your situation. Remember, having all your vital records ensures a smooth marriage ceremony.

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