I recently set about researching the requirements for how to have a family member officiating a wedding ceremony in California. I wanted to make sure our wedding officiant felt fully prepared to know they were leading a fully legal wedding day for us. I didn't want them to be standing in front of our guests, doing their pronouncement about “you may now kiss the bride,” and NOT knowing if the whole thing was legal!
Here's the weird thing. If you're officiating a wedding in California, there are two options:
- You can get your family member deputized for a day for a cost of $120.
- You can get him ordained online for free and then he can perform weddings for anybody when the mood strikes him. Hell, he could start a whole wedding business if he wanted.
I went online and did a little research into the two options, just to make sure I was reading this correctly because it still baffles me, but yes, in fact, this is the way it works in California.
(I can't vouch for other states; I have a sneaking suspicion that there might be some additional requirements in other jurisdictions.)
At any rate, I thought someone out there might be interested in how this works, so here is a summary of how to have a friend legally officiate your California wedding.
…Hold onto your hats, it's a little long!
Getting deputized for the big day… for just ONE day
This comes from the San Francisco County website. Keep in mind, the city clerk's office is the same as the county clerk's office, since the city of San Francisco is the county, as well.
CA Family Code Section 401(b) allows the Commissioner of Civil Marriages in the County to appoint deputy marriage commissioners to solemnize marriages in California. In San Francisco County, Deputization will be granted on a San Francisco County issued marriage license only. A photocopy of the marriage license must be presented at time of deputization. Marriage ceremony must be performed in California. [Note from Sarah: it also appears that if the couple is using a “private” marriage license, the ceremony has to be performed in San Francisco County.]
Person must be at least 18 years old
Person is not required to be a California resident.
Person must be fluent in the English language.
Person will be required to take the oath of office swearing/affirming to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California.
Person must appear in person in the Office of the County Clerk with valid legal photo identification.
Deputization service is offered on a walk-in basis Monday-Thursday, 8:00am-11:30am and 2:00pm-3:30pm only.
Religious wording and references are not allowed during the ceremony.
Fee is $120.00 payable to SF County Clerk.
Process takes approximately 30 minutes.
The Office of the County Clerk has the right to refuse deputization of a person, if the person is unable to complete the paperwork correctly and/or fails to meet the above requirements. If requirements above cannot be met, please check other CA County websites for its program requirements.
So, beyond the fairly restrictive times when you can get deputized, there is that hefty $120 price tag (a commissioner-led service costs $75 in San Francisco; it's cheaper in other counties). After shelling out big bucks to reserve the fourth-floor gallery and borrow a few chairs, I was in no mood to fork over another $120 so that we could (hopefully) get my brother deputized on the day of the wedding — especially since this would leave us with the same uncertainty we would have if we waited to get an appointment with a Commissioner.
Getting Ordained Online
California Family Code section 400(a) allows “[a] priest, minister, rabbi, or authorized person of any religious denomination” to solemnize a marriage. [Sarah's emphasis.] So the question is, what does this mean and how is it possible that filling out a form on a website will qualify? I'm still noodling through the nuances of this question, but it seems that yes, indeed, an online marriage church will qualify.
As crazy as it sounds, nothing in the California marriage statutes requires that the minister file credentials with the state or county, either. The county and state are removed entirely from any responsibility for verification of our officiant's credentials. The State does not maintain a central registry of members of the clergy.
All of this means that yes, you can get your friends or family ordained online and the marriage will still be legal, provided that the marriage license is filled out properly and returned to the issuing county within ten days after the ceremony. So. How do you choose an online church? I went searching and settled on the following criteria:
- Free (or as close to free as possible)
- No requirement that the person being ordained ascribe to specific religious beliefs
Using these criteria, I rejected the Universal Life Church as having just a smidge too much preachiness and miscellaneous fees that I didn't want to pay for my friend officiating a wedding. Then I found the American Marriage Ministries, which had as their Guiding Principles:
- All people have the right to celebrate marriage according to their values.
- The right to perform marriage belongs to all people.
- Those engaging in marriage have the right to decide how and by whom their wedding ceremony is conducted.
These principles sounded good, and although they had various “ministry” and “credentials” packages that you can buy, becoming ordained is a free service. Since there is no licensing requirement in California, and California law does not require ministers to provide proof of their credentials, we didn't need to purchase any of their various ministry packages, either. I filled out their form with my brother's information, and in under five minutes, he was ordained to perform our ceremony.
If you want to know more about California's officiant requirements, you can find everything you need to know about who can perform a marriage ceremony in California Family Code Sections 400-402.
Legal Duties of the Officiant as someone officiating a wedding
The legal duties of the officiant are spelled out in California Family Code sections 420-426. Essentially, there are three requirements:
- No particular form for the ceremony of marriage is required for solemnization of the marriage, but the parties shall declare, in the physical presence of the person solemnizing the marriage and necessary witnesses, that they take each other as spouses.
- That the couple, witnesses and officiant sign a Marriage License issued by a county in the State of California.
- That the officiant return the Marriage License to the issuing county within 10 days of the wedding ceremony.
The minister/officiant must:
Sign and print or type upon the marriage license a statement, in the form prescribed by the State Department of Public Health, showing all of the following:(a) The fact, date (month, day, year), and place (city and county) of solemnization.
(b) The printed names, signatures, and mailing addresses of at least one, and no more than two, witnesses to the ceremony.
(c) The official position of the person solemnizing the marriage,or of the denomination of which that person is a priest, minister, rabbi, or other authorized person of any religious denomination.
(d) The person solemnizing the marriage shall also type or print his or her name and mailing address.(Calif. Fam. Code section 422.)