Modern families plan modern weddings, and nowadays more couples are opting to have a friend or relative officiate their ceremony after getting "ordained" online. But can an Internet "priest" or "minister" legally officiate your wedding?
Most states have laws about who can perform a marriage ceremony, limiting the officiant to a judge or court clerk, government official, or a minister or clergy member. In the age of online universities, it may not be too surprising that some seek religious credentials online as well.
Is this legally binding? Well, it depends on where you live.
Who's a 'Clergy Member'?
State marriage laws may all look similar, but the way they define "clergy" differs, as a listing at USMarriageLaws.com shows. To be able to perform marriages, the person officiating generally must be considered a clergy member under state law.
Some statutes define a clergy member as someone who has a congregation and a following. That seems to exclude ministers or priests from online ordination services who have no "flock."
But often, state officials don't worry too much about the distinction.
In most states, a person ordained through an online process is still a minister, at least for the purpose of marrying a couple. All the officiant needs to do is sign the marriage license after the ceremony and then mail it to the correct office.
But in some areas, ordination thorugh an online church is not acceptable.
Alabama, Connecticut, Virginia, and Tennessee generally don't recognize the credentials of priests ordained via the Internet. The same holds true in parts of Pennsylvania, certain counties in New York, and (perhaps surprisingly) Las Vegas, according to The New York Times.
That means if you do get married by an Internet-ordained minister in those places, your marriage could be set aside by a court if a dispute comes up during divorce or inheritance.
Finding a Solution
One way to know if your state allows ministers who are ordained online to officiate marriages is to ask the clerk at your county courthouse.
But if you have a hard time getting an answer, it may be safer to use a more traditional marriage officiant. You could also get a civil marriage the day before or after the wedding just to make it official.
For couples who are getting grief about the legality of their marriage, the concept of common law marriage may be a lifesaver. Many states recognize common law marriage for couples who meet certain requirements. People who represent themselves as married and have lived together for a certain period of time can be considered legally married in these states.
That comes in useful for inheritance and division of property. It can also save you a lot of trouble if a government official questions the legitimacy of the priest who performed your wedding.
Don't forget about the marriage license either. Make sure you follow the other requirements to ensure your marriage is legal.