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Who Can Officiate My Wedding?

Bride and groom at outdoor wedding ceremony

Couples are increasingly using a close friend or family member to officiate their weddings. Having someone who supports the relationship, knows the couple well, and is happy to share in the joy of their wedding day can be a meaningful experience. But the last thing a couple wants to worry about on their big day are 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 marriage and family laws, including for officiating a marriage. This means the requirements will vary according to what state and county you are in when you marry. Before getting married, it is a good idea to check with the county government (often the county clerk's office) to ensure you know the full ins and outs of getting a marriage certificate in the state. These laws will include who can officiate the marriage ceremony - called "solemnization" - and how someone can become a legally recognized officiant.

The good news is that typically the requirements are not onerous. However, it is still a good idea to check local laws and be married by a recognized wedding officiant. If you just have a friend officiate who has not gone through the formality of becoming a recognized officiant, your marriage status could be challenged in some jurisdictions.

How to Become a Religious or Civil Marriage Officiant

Generally, states recognize two types of marriage officiants: religious and civil. Some states have no requirements at all regarding the officiant, however. All states allow an authorized person of any religious denomination to officiate weddings.

Note that regardless of who officiates the wedding, the couple will need to make sure that they have filed a marriage certificate according to the state and local laws where the ceremony took place. Even if you were married in front of your whole town by a priest, pastor, imam or rabbi you have known your whole life, the state will likely not recognize it unless you have obtained a marriage certificate. (The exception to this is called common-law marriage, but many states no longer recognize common law marriages).

The important part of any wedding from the government's perspective is the marriage certificate. That is what 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 get married by a certain member of the clergy. However, some states do somewhat limit who they recognize as a religious officiant. In Tennessee, for example, only ministers who have gone through ordination by “a considered, deliberate, and responsible act" are recognized. In most states, however, 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 their personal beliefs. Most states will recognize someone who gets 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. However, a number of other government officials may already be qualified to marry you. For example, members of Congress can usually officiate weddings. If you happen to be close friends or family to a federal or state judge, they can also officiate wedding ceremonies.

A friend or family member may also be able to become a civil officiant by being "deputized" by a county clerk or judge. In states and counties that do this, typically the officiant is deputized for only that day and only to officiate one specific wedding; if they want to officiate another wedding they would have to become deputized again. 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 same words spoken during a marriage ceremony. But there are no magic words that must be said to make a marriage legal. Marriage officiants and the couple can say whatever they want to during the ceremony, it has no affect on the marriage's legal status. You may want to stick to the usual ceremony script, but you are under no legal obligation to.

Again, the important thing is not the rituals surrounding marriage, at least according to state marriage laws. The important thing is that the marriage license application is filled out accurately, completely, and according to state and county requirements. These requirements may include the signature of two witnesses, photo identification, or even a notary public's signature, but there are no set words, wedding vows, or oaths that need to be spoken.

Other Legal Issues to Consider

While becoming an officiant is usually a straightforward process, sometimes legal hiccups can arise during the course of 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 will need to officially divorce before the state will recognize a new marriage.

Religious officiants often also counsel and advise the couple prior to the marriage. During this process, you may consider exploring the possibility of a prenuptial agreement. A prenuptial agreement can make legal separation and divorce a much smoother process, as the couple have already agreed on certain basic matters such as property division in the event of a split. A prenuptial agreement is also a useful tool for 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.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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