When you’re choosing an officiant (be it hiring a wonderful celebrant, or asking a dear friend or family member to lead your ceremony), it’s important to make sure that they can legally officiate your marriage.
Case in point: when my mom and stepdad got married (ten years ago this November!), my stepdad was in charge of finding the rabbi. They met with him once before hand, and my stepdad decided that he was the one! When he showed up for the wedding - well, we’re pretty sure he had been drinking. During the ceremony, he went on and on about my parent’s May/December romance (uhm.. they’re less than five years apart!), and was just generally strange.
A sweet beginning to the ceremony.. walking my mom down the aisle.
My mom says that immediately after the ceremony, she and my stepfather retreated to a room to be by themselves for the yichud, a Jewish tradition. The rabbi knocked on the door and asked them for the check! “Made out to Cash, please,” he also asked.
Then a few weeks later, my mom was watching the news and saw a piece about a guy who had impersonated a rabbi, and performed a bunch of wedding ceremonies in New York! It meant that everyone who had been married by him was not legally married. Because the couples who had him officiate had no idea that he was not a rabbi, New York State granted some kind of clemency to his couples, so they would not need to get remarried. My mom began to suspect that maybe her rabbi had been this impostor rabbi guy…but because they were still legally married, and she didn’t want to stress anyone out about, she just let it go.
With the dozens of couples I’ve met with over the past year - I’ve only had one (!) ask me for proof of my legality. I guess I just look very trustworthy? In New Jersey, the laws are pretty simple when it comes to who can officiate at a wedding:
Judges of a Federal District Court, United States magistrates, Judges of a Municipal Court, Judges of the Superior Court, Judges of a Tax Court, Retired judges of the Superior Court, Judge or the Superior or Tax Court who has resigned in good standing, any Mayor/Deputy Mayor or Chairman of any Township Committee, Village President of New Jersey, County Clerks, and every minister of every religion.
Which means that I, as an ordained minister through the Universal Brotherhood Movement, can legally declare you husband and wife. It also means that if you go over to the Universal Life Church’s website, fill out a form, and click “submit,” you can perform weddings in New Jersey. It’s as simple as that - no forms to fill out on the officiant’s end, no registration, no nothing!
But every state isn’t as awesome as the wonderful state of New Jersey. I live less than half an hour away from both New York City and New York State, but I haven’t done any weddings there yet because the laws are a little more stringent. In certain areas of New York State, there have been precedents set where marriages were annulled because a Universal Life Church minister was not legally allowed to officiate at weddings. This happened, because though the officiant was a minister, he or she did not have a congregation that they provided spiritual guidance to - and that’s a requirement to legally be able to solemnize marriages, according to the laws on the books!
New York City has its own set of laws, and officiants need to register with the city (that’s one of my goals for the summer!).
But that’s not all! In Massachusetts, anyone can perform a wedding, as long as they submit an application (complete with letter of recommendation) and a $25 fee. I learned, through Mrs. Cherry Pie’s wedding (of Weddingbee), that in Montana, anyone can preside over a marriage! In certain areas of Pennsylvania, you can get a self-uniting license (traditionally used for Quaker weddings), where there is no officiant!
But the long story of it all is - ask your officiant a few questions about their legality.
If you’re asking a family or friend to officiate - do your research first on if they can do it. This is also the one time that I will tell you to not rely on the internet - call the town hall or registrar where your wedding is taking place and make sure that your friend can legally officiate with their internet ordainment. Not only do you want to make sure that you’re married at the end of it - but some states have penalty fees that may need to be paid by your officiant if they are not legally allowed to solemnize their wedding. Totally not fun!