n an era of six-figure weddings when couples obsess about the band playlist and hand towels for the restrooms, one question may get short shrift: Is the person performing the wedding legally able to do so?
Daniel Morales and Gwendolyn Baxter thought they knew. Their outdoor ceremony two summers ago in Farmington, Conn., was performed by a friend who had been ordained online by the Universal Life Church. Having heard of other couples who were married that way, they assumed it was legal.
But Connecticut is one of a half-dozen places that do not recognize marriages performed by someone who became a minister for the sole purpose of marrying people. Such a minister “doesn’t meet the requirements of the state statutes,” said William Gerrish, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Public Health.
The penalty in Connecticut for an unauthorized performance of a marriage is a fine of up to $500 and a year in jail for the officiant, though Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general, said prosecution is unlikely.
As for the marriage, the statute is clear, Mr. Blumenthal said. Nonetheless, he encouraged couples not to panic; unless the issue is forced through divorce or death, the judicial system tends to grant couples the benefit of the doubt.
“If the marriage is performed by someone unauthorized, but the two people having the marriage still believe it to be valid, it may continue to be valid until someone challenges it,” he said.
But, he said, “They are at risk.”
With so many people turning to friends and relatives to perform their marriage ceremonies, more are bound to discover that they may not be legally married. But finding out what is allowed can be daunting. Marriage laws are often vague and vary from state to state and county by county. And misimpressions are rampant.
“The most important thing to us was that someone we knew and liked would marry us,” said Mr. Morales, who is a lawyer in Chicago, where his wife is in law school.
“If two lawyers can be duped into getting married illegally,” Mr. Morales said, “then anybody can.”
For some couples, the legality of the marriage is a secondary consideration. They see their wedding as a public celebration of their commitment to each other and little more than that.
So, with their encouragement, friends and relatives with no more interest in ministering than the looming wedding date sign up with online ministries, where they can become ordained just by typing in their name and address.
The Universal Life Church alone has ordained more than 18 million ministers since it was founded in 1959 in Modesto, Calif. The organization ordains 10,000 people a month, twice as many as in 2000, according to Andre Hensley, the church’s president. Eighty percent join the fold solely to perform weddings, he said.
The Church of Spiritual Humanism, the Rose Ministries and the Temple of Earth, which describes itself as a “religion-free religion,” also have online ministry sites.
Somehow forgotten is that marriage is a legal contract. And three states besides Connecticut – Alabama, Virginia and Tennessee – as well as other jurisdictions, prohibit weddings performed by ministers who do not have active ministries.
Even in Las Vegas, that city’s no-holds-barred image notwithstanding, it is illegal for individuals to perform a marriage if they do not have a congregation, according to Lynda Foresta, the Clark County division manager of marriage services. Yes, Elvis may be in the house, but he may face up to six months doing the “Jailhouse Rock” unless an authorized minister is there to sign the license.
In many other states, including New York, the rules about ministers ordained online are less clear. Often, even city, county and state officials are uncertain of the parameters.
As a clerk at the Marriage License Bureau in Philadelphia, who did not want to be named because she is not allowed to speak to reporters, said, “People call us and ask if it’s legal or not, and we don’t know if it’s legal.”
Wedding announcements may generate more confusion. The New York Times has a policy of publishing articles only about weddings in which it can confirm that the officiant is legally empowered to perform the ceremony. Nonetheless, confusion over which jurisdictions permit what officiants has led to the publication of articles about at least a dozen weddings in recent years that in retrospect appear questionable.
The laws regarding officiants are there to ensure that only people of sufficient standing perform a ceremony that is a keystone of society. Elnora Douglas, the office coordinator of the St. Louis County marriage license department, finds it odd that couples would want to circumvent them.
“It’s like you want your favorite cousin to do a surgery, so they go online to get a medical degree,” she said.
Still, she said, “Everyone saw that episode of ‘Friends’ where Joey got ordained, and we’ve been bombarded.”
Kimberly Palmer, 27, a business reporter at US News & World Report in Washington, said she turned to a Universal Life minister because she and her husband are of different religions.
She grew up Catholic, she said, and her husband, Sujay Davé, 29, has a parent who is Hindu. Though neither consider themselves religious, they wanted their ceremony to “have an underlying spiritual element.” They were married in 2005 in Chevy Chase, Md., after conflicting responses from town officials regarding the wedding’s legality there. (A county clerk later told a Times reporter that it was legal).
The option of standing before a judge or justice of the peace did not appeal to them.
“It would have been so impersonal,” Ms. Palmer said. “We were willing to take the risk to have the ceremony that we really wanted.”
That may not be the wisest course, said Louise Truax, a lawyer in Fairfield, Conn., who specializes in family law.
“If you get married by someone who isn’t able to marry you, that’s a problem,” she said, proceeding to list some of the potential repercussions: “If you don’t have a legally recognized marriage, then your ability to get relief in the event of a divorce goes away,” she said. Inheritance rights could also be in jeopardy, and couples could have trouble with the I.R.S. if they filed joint tax returns.
And 39 states, including Connecticut, do not recognize common-law marriage, so the idea that time together will legalize the union does not apply.
FOR that reason, officials in many states discourage couples from using ministers ordained online, even when they have not been explicitly ruled illegal.
“Err on the side of caution,” said Caren Martin, the deputy in charge of litigation for the marriage license bureau of Philadelphia County in Pennsylvania. “Make sure the person is qualified and don’t take chances.”
New York State, New Jersey and Florida have very broadly worded laws that seem to allow ministers ordained online to perform weddings. Yet it was in New York that a marriage performed by an online minister was invalidated.
In 1989, the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court ruled in a divorce case involving a Suffolk County couple that their marriage and a prenuptial agreement were void because the officiant had been a Universal Life minister.
“A church which consists of all ministers, and in which all new converts can become instant ministers, in fact has no minister,” the court wrote, concluding, “A minister whose title and status is so casually and cavalierly acquired does not qualify for licensing to marry.” Case closed.
Or perhaps not.
“We found that to be rather archaic,” said Patrick Synmoie, the counsel to the City Clerk of New York. The office issued its own rule last October, allowing Universal Life ministers to again officiate at weddings in the five boroughs.
But the appellate court’s ruling still holds for Westchester County, Long Island and most of the Hudson Valley.
“We will try to get that overturned,” said Mr. Hensley of the Universal Life Church, who defended his church and the authenticity of its wedding practitioners.
“Not every minister excels at all the functions of the ministry,” he said. “Some people are more comfortable preaching. Others aren’t, but that doesn’t mean they still don’t want to serve or pastor in a certain way.”
So where does that leave couples who cannot confirm whether their marriages are valid or not?
“They could just go to city hall and do it again and then they’ll know they’re married,” advised Ariela Dubler, a vice dean of Columbia University Law School. “Of course, in every state but Massachusetts this wouldn’t apply to couples of the same sex, who are excluded from the states’ marriage laws.”
Over all, she concluded, “It’s not in a state’s interest to have lots of couples who thought they were married discover they’re not married.”