Updated November 2020
If you're feeling behind the times on understanding virtual wedding ceremonies and receptions (and are too embarrassed at this point to ask)... Don't worry, you're not alone. We've got you covered!
Changing crowd restrictions and business closures continue to put a wrench in the works of couple's wedding plans across the country. At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, couples quickly turned to the innovative concept of the virtual wedding ceremony as a solution to their Coronavirus wedding woes. As the pandemic continues, virtual wedding ceremonies have become increasingly common and creative.
However, a lot of the terms being used to talk about virtual wedding ceremonies are confusing. Because of their relatively newness, some terms have overlapping or contradictory meanings. Others have been used rather loosely in reporting and discussion, creating additional confusion for those who aren't tech savvy – especially when talking about legality and marriage laws.
In the past few months, we’ve received questions about everything from Zoom weddings to self-solemnizing ceremonies, and there are some important technicalities that need to be addressed.
So let’s break it down to clearly define and understand these relevant terms.
A rite that legally unites a couple in marriage as they physically appear together before an officiant (civil servant, minister, etc.) to exchange their vows of commitment.
This simply means that the ceremony is being broadcast live, opposed to uploading a previously recorded video to be watched and shared later (say, on YouTube or a personal website). To livestream just means that you’re sharing what’s going on in real time via the internet. You can livestream any activity or event, and it doesn’t matter where you are, what you’re doing or how many people are physically present with you. Some of the most popular livestreaming platforms include Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facebook Live, and Instagram Live.
For folks planning on livestreaming their nuptials, read Here’s How to Livestream Your Wedding.
This term is being used broadly, but the most important detail to note when using this term is whether or not the officiant is physically present. This will make all the difference when determining if a ceremony is legal.
A virtual wedding ceremony can mean that it's simply a livestreamed wedding ceremony, where the couple is physically present with their officiant and witness(es), and they're just broadcasting their ceremony for others to watch from afar.
Example: An AMM Minister recently performed a livestreamed virtual wedding ceremony. The minister, practicing social distancing, stood six feet away from the couple to officiate, and they broadcast the ceremony live via Zoom and FaceTime so that family members as far away as England could watch. Virtual ceremonies can also be called 'hybrid' ceremonies, because some guests are joining physically while others are joining virtually.
But 'virtual ceremony' can also refer to a wedding ceremony that is officiated via video conferencing platform, where the officiant is not physically present. This circumstance can also be described as 'officiating remotely' or a 'virtual officiant.' The couple exchanges their vows together from one location, while their officiant telecommutes (video conferences) from a different location, and presides over their wedding via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, etc. Often, wedding guests will also beam in from other locations and devices - to witness the ceremony and celebrate remotely.
This second example, with a virtual or remote officiant, can have serious legal implications. It is only allowed in a handful of states at this time, so couples should be very careful and thoroughly research the laws in their state.
Read These are the States Where You Can -- and Can't -- Get Married Online for more information.
Important: Depending on where you live, a virtual ceremony of this type might be possible, but marriage laws vary across the country, and many of them could prevent these kinds of ceremonies from being legal. For example, in 2010, when a couple in Texas had their officiant in Washington, DC perform their ceremony via Skype, their marriage was declared invalid. In the last few months, however, some states have adapted their laws to reflect new circumstances. Recently, an international couple living in different countries was married over Zoom by a judge in Utah.
A unique marriage ceremony where one or more of the persons getting married is unable to physically appear before the officiant. A proxy marriage 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. Each state has different laws regarding marriages by proxy, and most of them restrict proxy marriages to members of the armed forces and individuals with extenuating health issues. A proxy marriage is not the same as a virtual ceremony.
Example: Anyone remember Yuri Malenchenko’s famous satellite-beamed proxy marriage ceremony, when he married Ekaterina Dmitriev over a teleconference screen while serving aboard the International Space Station in 2003?
A self-uniting marriage means that the couple presides over their own wedding ceremony, and no officiant or witnesses are required to sign the marriage license. Guests are optional. Whether or not you can perform your own marriage ceremony depends entirely on the regulations in the state where you are getting married, and only a few handful of states allow self-uniting marriages. And even self-uniting marriage ceremonies might require a witness or two present, so it's important to do your research.
Example: This couple in Colorado (one of the states that permits self-solemnizing marriages) opted for an intimate self-united marriage ceremony with just the two them and a photographer to capture them sharing their vows atop a mountain at sunrise.
As you can see, there’s a pretty big difference between inviting your guests to get dressed up and tune into your livestreamed ceremony from their livingrooms, while you touch elbows with your phsycially-present officiant, and having your officiant attempt to perform the ceremony from afar via video conferening platform.
But why is this important?
Well, marriage laws can be unclear to begin with, and they are further complicated by the fact that they aren't up to date with current technological capabilities. Some states like New York and Utah have realized that drastic times call for drastic measures, and quickly made exceptions to the old rules. Others, however, like Hawaii, have issued statements making it very clear that Skype wedding ceremonies are not permitted.
We want everyone – couples, especially – to be informed and make sound decisions to avoid additional stress or complications in the future. If you're considering officiating or having someone officiate via virtual platform in a state that does not have clear policies regarding online wedding ceremonies, we urge you to proceed with caution, and to first seek the counsel of your local marriage bureau officials or an attorney who specializes in family law.
One more time, here's a current list of states where you can - and can't - get married or perform marriage online.
In the meantime, we hope this helps you understand what all the new lingo bouncing around is about.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep following us here on American Weddings for all of the latest updates.