Whether you are preparing to marry your partner or have been asked to officiate at the wedding of a family member or friend, you probably have some questions about the legal aspects of the whole process. Before you do anything – and regardless of who you choose to officiate your wedding – it’s essential to first check the laws in your local county (or the county where you’re getting married!) to make sure your chosen officiant is a good fit from a legal standpoint. Why? Marriage laws and regulations vary from state to state and even county to county, so there are a lot of nuances to keep in mind, and some states don’t allow certain types of officiants to perform legal marriages. In general, you’ll find that the person who can legally officiate your marriage is one of several types of officiants: civil, professional, ordained, or religious.
When it comes to choosing the right person, this is something that you, as partners, should discuss carefully before you start planning your wedding. “Whether couples choose a friend, a family member or a professional, their celebrant needs to listen to them and hold them accountable, both during the planning and writing phase and during the actual ceremony,” says Lewis King, executive director of American Marriage Ministries. “In practice, this means finding someone who can build that bridge between what makes the couple unique and what is universal and accessible to their guests.”
Below, we walk you through the difference between each type of wedding officiant, with the help of an expert, so you can make the best – and legal – decision for your big day.
What is a civil officiant?
A civil officiant is a person who has gone through a formal, legal process to be recognised as an officiant. An example of a civil officiant is a justice of the peace or a magistrate, but anyone can become a civil officiant. If you are planning a civil ceremony – which is a non-religious, legal marriage ceremony – a civil officiant will officiate at the marriage.
How to become a wedding officiant
What is an ordained officiant?
If a couple wants a close friend or family member to officiate their wedding, that person can receive the legal ability to be an officiant through non-denominational churches, non-profit organizations, and online services that offer the opportunity to be legally recognized as an officiant. Note that state laws vary and many will require that the marriage officiant also be registered in the state where the marriage ceremony takes place prior to the wedding.
What is a professional officiant
There are many non-religious and non-civil officiants, also called celebrants, who provide marriage officiating services as well as guidance in writing vows and planning a wedding ceremony (this can include non-denominational ceremonies, interfaith ceremonies, and spiritual ceremonies). These professionals are licensed officiants who have extensive experience officiating weddings. If you’re not sure you want a civil or religious officiant and don’t have a friend or family member to officiate the ceremony, a celebrant is a great option.
“Couples should look for a professional officiant with similar qualities with whom they feel a connection and a shared vision for the ceremony,” advises King. “Since [the couple] is likely hiring someone off the internet, it’s important to read reviews and find someone who specializes in the type of ceremony they have in mind.”
What is a religious officiant?
A religious officiant is someone who is ordained by a particular religious denomination as a member of the clergy and is usually a leader within their faith, such as a minister, priest, imam or rabbi, who performs marriage ceremonies at their place of worship. Note that while many people can be religiously ordained to officiate at a marriage, some states have limits on who they consider religious officiants.
Note that if you choose to have a religious officiant perform your marriage ceremony, this does not mean that you must hold the ceremony in a particular place of worship. Be sure to check with the officiant before you begin the wedding planning process to make sure they can officiate at your desired location.