How to Make Sure Your Custom Wedding Ceremony Is Legal

There are a few necessary requirements in order to be considered married in the eyes the law.

steph tim wedding ceremony couple kiss
Photo: Scarlet O’Neill

Asking a friend or family member to officiate your ceremony can give your wedding a level of intimacy you might not get otherwise-but if you're asking a non-professional to write the script for the most important day of your life, you'll want to make sure that it's legally binding. The requirements are pretty simple, says Diane Smith-Hoban, executive director of non-denominational officiant group Journeys of the Heart: A legal ceremony includes a signed, state-issued marriage license and "an exchange of promises"-which leaves you plenty of flexibility to create a wedding ceremony that's as unique as your relationship. Here, we break down the three facets that make any wedding ceremony legal in the eyes of the law.

The Exchange of Promises

Every wedding ceremony is different: Couples can include readings and music (or not); ask relatives and friends to participate (or not); exchange rings (or not). They can recite traditional vows or write their own, include pets in their bridal party, and script a ceremony that runs as long or as short as they want. The only element required for a wedding to go forward is the couple's declaration of intent-something, says Smith-Hoban, "that constitutes a desire and willingness to marry." Often this is the "I do" or "I will" portion of the ceremony, although even that can be customized. "It's subject to interpretation what this 'must' look like," says Smith-Hoban. "Meaningful eye contact? Silent ring exchange? Words spoken? We interpret it very broadly-essentially, whatever the couple decides to do or say as their exchange, with our guidance as they may wish."

The Marriage License

Marriage license requirements vary by state, with each setting its own rules for waiting periods and expiration dates. But no matter where you tie the knot, it's the signing of the marriage license that makes you legally married. It's so important to your big day that in some states, an officiant who marries a couple without a license can face jail time or fines. Without a license, you can have a commitment ceremony-though that comes with its own legalese. "A commitment ceremony, while lovely, is not legally binding and has no requirements," says Smith-Hoban. "It is important that the couple or the officiant not use language to imply a legal marriage is occurring, as this can be construed as fraud."

The Signature

The marriage license requires the signature of the couple, witnesses (depending on the state), and an officiant authorized by the state. If you're having a religious ceremony, your authorized officiant is the priest, pastor, rabbi, or other religious figure; in a non-religious ceremony, it could be a judge or clerk, or a professional officiant from a ceremonial ministry like Journeys of the Heart. You can also have a willing family member or friend become ordained online through the Universal Life Church or the American Marriage Ministries, giving them the authority to act as a religious officer during a non-denominational ceremony. "The license is generally signed after the ceremony, not as part of it," says Smith-Hoban. It's then up to the officiant to submit the signed marriage license to the state: "The officiant has the legal authority and responsibility for properly completing and returning the license to the issuing county office." If you do enlist a friend or family member as your officiant, make sure you choose someone who will remember to get your license signed, sealed, and delivered-if you don't trust your favorite sister, college roommate, or childhood best friend to see the job through, you're better off hiring a professional.

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