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Online Skype Weddings (Probably) Aren't Legal -- An Expert Explains How Coronavirus Cancellations are Pushing Couples into a Legal Grey Area

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 31st, 2020


Couples should not assume that online wedding ceremonies will be valid according to their local marriage laws.

This article is about ceremonies where the officiant performs the ceremony remotely from a second location over Skype or Zoom (or any other video conference platform) - and not about livestreamed ceremonies where guests attend remotely, watching the couple and officiant in the same physical location.


Scroll to the bottom of the article to see a list of states where virtual officiants are allowed.

 


 

The Coronavirus pandemic has forced couples to resort to creative wedding planning solutions… but having an officiant perform their wedding remotely over Skype, Twitch, FaceTime, or Zoom probably shouldn’t be one of them.

 

The effects of COVID-19 have hit the wedding industry, and hard. Brides and grooms-to-be are left with no choice but to cancel, reschedule or drastically alter their wedding plans to accommodate crowd restrictions – leading some to consider having a Skype ceremony (or "virtual wedding ceremony") where couples say their vows from one location while their officiant performs the ceremony from another via video conferencing platforms.

 

This should not, however, be confused with a marriage by proxy, where one or more persons getting married is physically unable to appear before the officiant. Marriage by proxy typically requires a power of attorney and a real, live individual standing in for one or more of the absent parties – and the absent party is not the officiant.

 

A Skype ceremony of this kind may seem innovative and simple enough in theory – but couples should be wary of the legal implications. We talked to professional wedding officiant and legal secretary Lori Prashker-Thomas to get to the bottom of this matter. 

 

 

Lori says:

 

"One of the biggest legal issues with Skype weddings would be verifying identity and verifying whether the marriage license is legitimate.  I just saw a post where an officiant is having the couple mail them the license, they are doing a Skype ceremony, the officiant is signing and then mailing the license back to the couple."

 

The longtime reasoning for couples to appear in person with their officiant is simply to confirm that everyone present is, in fact, who they say they are, and that they're all participating in the solemnization of marriage willingly and in accordance with laws in the juridisdiction in which they've received permission to wed. 

 

To further clarify, Lori cites Pennsylvania General Assembly Chapter 15 § 1504:

 

Returns of marriages.

(a) General rule. -- The original marriage certificate shall be signed by the person solemnizing the marriage and given to the parties contracting the marriage. The duplicate certificate shall be signed by the person or by a member of the religious society, institution or organization solemnizing the marriage and returned for recording within ten days to the court which issued the license.

 

 

Lori says:

 

"This, to me, means the license has to be given or handed back to the couple - which means they should [physically] be in front of the officiant, judge, priest, etc."

 

We realize that marriage laws haven't been updated to reflect current technological capabilities, but this vague language opens the door to a number of major concerns.

 

For example, in states that require minister registration, how will they verify that the officiant was fully authorized to perform marriage within that juridisdiction - especially if they're beaming in from a completely different county or state? And since it's all on a screen, who's to say that the officiant can't be in another foreign country altogether? And what about the states where a notary signs the marriage license? Notarizing requires physical presence - no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

 

...as you can see, we are treading in murky waters. But generally speaking – and to keep your marriage safe and legally binding – in most states, the officiant must be physically present to sign the marriage license along with witnesses (as stipulated), which has to occur promptly after the ceremony.

 

We've even consulted our own lawyers, and they agree that virtual ceremonies - where the officiant isn't physically present - might not meet local requirements, and that couples must reach out to their local governments or family law attorneys before proceeding with a wedding ceremony officiated remotely.

 

 

Couples Should Remember:

 

  • Skype ceremonies have been attempted before. When a couple in Texas had their officiant in Washington, DC perform their ceremony via Skype, their marriage was declared invalid
  • Because marriage laws differ across the country, it should not be assumed that Skype wedding ceremonies will be considered valid by your local marriage laws.
  • Local marriage laws and policies should be explicitly stated on the county or marriage bureau’s official government website.
  • Marriage bureau or county clerks cannot provide legal counsel. They can recite local policies and assist you in properly filling out applications, licenses, or forms, but otherwise their job is simply to issue and file marriage licenses.
  • A county clerk – especially if new in their position, or particularly flustered – can provide false or unclear information, even if unintentionally. If you receive any kind of guidance or instructions, be sure to ask for the name of the clerk you are speaking with so that you may verify the direct source of your information.

 

Lori says:

 

"Call the county you live in and speak with the Register of Wills of office, Marriage License Bureau, or whomever issues the licenses and confirm the details with them. Please note that the clerks are NOT able to give out legal advice, but can and should only quote the law."

 

We sympathize with the frustration and anxiety that couples are experiencing in these tumultuous times, and we encourage them to work closely with their wedding officiant and other vendors to find a mutually beneficial and legal solution to any ceremony woes.

 

Because of strict social distancing measures in Pennsylvania, Lori is currently not performing any wedding ceremonies with more than five people. But she's still able to accommodate couples willing to forego their original wedding day itinerary with a 200-person guest list and open bar.

 

Lori says:

 

"If it is just the three of us, meaning the couple and myself, and I am practicing social distancing, [standing] six feet away, or if a license needs to be signed for whatever reason, I will do what I am calling, 'Make it Legal' – which is getting a verbal consent from both parties that they are not getting married under duress, and [perform] a ring ceremony if the couple would like one. I can then sign the marriage license and send into the Register of Wills office to have it filed with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

 

Intimate ceremonies like this are still a meaningful option that ensures full legal compliance. In fact, another one of our ordained ministers, Antonia Santiago, performed one just like it in Manhattan, surrounded and cheered on by total strangers (from a safe distance, of course)!

 

Like us, Lori wants to continue educating folks on the issues surrounding virtual weddings, and is highly concerned that couples will “be taken by unscrupulous ‘officiants’ who are looking to make a buck or take advantage of unknowing couples.”

 

While we normally appreciate unconventional ceremonies, we’ll go ahead and say this to couples:

 

If you wish to pursue a Skype wedding ceremony with a remote officiant, we urge you to first seek the counsel of a legal expert who specializes in family law. Marriage laws vary across the country, so proceed with caution. Unless you receive clear permission from an attorney or local marriage bureau, it’s probably not in your best interest to settle for a Skype wedding of this kind. It’s just not worth risking the legal repercussions – or compromising the validity of your marriage.

 

As of November, 2020, officiants can perform marriage remotely via video conference in California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Utah, but regardless of where you live, you’ll want to check the details with your county.

 


 

Meet the Experts

 

 

Contributing to this article is Lori Prashker-Thomas (Ceremonies by Lori), a professional wedding officiant since 2013 and a legal secretary at a law firm for over 20 years. With her insight and expertise, we examine the complexities and implications regarding online/virtual wedding ceremonies.

 

We’re American Marriage Ministries, a non-denominational church and 501c3 nonprofit organization. For over a decade, we’ve worked closely with county clerks, lawmakers, and lawyers all over the country to provide free ordination to perform marriage, as well as guidance on marriage laws to couples and weddings officiants alike.

 


 

Updated November 2020

 

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