Technically, anyone can officiate a wedding! A majority of couples today are asking a close friend or family member to officiate their wedding, rather than a clergy member or another traditional officiant.
But what is required to become an officiant? Most states allow anyone ordained as a minister within a religious group to officiate a wedding. But that doesn’t mean you or your officiating friend needs to become a full-time clergy member.
Sates tend to categorize officiants as acting in a religious capacity while making no requirement in terms of beliefs or identity. Services provided by online ministries such as Universal Life Church and American Marriage Ministries allow anyone to easily become ordained online for the purposes of performing marriage ceremonies.
But be careful; requirements vary by state. Not all states recognize these online ministries as legally valid, and some states require you to submit additional documents before the wedding officiant is authorized to perform a wedding ceremony.
Ordained clergy members, active federal or state judges (and sometimes retired judges), county clerks, and professional wedding officiants are the more traditional options. If you are concerned about the legal requirements in your region, these options can put you at ease.
In some states, a clergy member must not only be ordained, but they must also be licensed to perform religious ceremonies. States such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, West Viriginia, and Delaware require the officiant to register their credentials in advance of the wedding to receive a certificate.
Some states provide options for temporary registration. California gives some individuals single-day deputization for those seeking to officiate a marriage without becoming ordained. In other states like Kentucky, Connecticut, Virginia, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania, the requirements are trickier.
To have a non-clergy member friend officiate, you may need to get pre-approval from the clerk’s office or have a county clerk, judge, or a justice of the peace solemnize the wedding legally ahead of time.
Self-uniting marriages (without an officiant) are also a possibility, though again, local laws vary. You can search for more state-specific requirements here.
It’s important to note that these geography-specific requirements (and their variance across states) pertain to the location of your marriage ceremony, not to where you live.
If you live in a Kansas City but are tying the knot in Hawaii, you need to go by Hawaii's marriage laws. That means you'll request documents from a Hawaiian government office, register your officiant in Hawaii, submit a marriage license and then receive a marriage certificate from Hawaii, etc.
You should do your best to resolve these critical steps a month or two in advance of the wedding to make sure everything is in order.
From a legal perspective, there are three things that need to happen to make a wedding ceremony official and the marriage legitimate according to the government.
It is always an option to have more than one ceremony. You can have a basic ceremony that fulfills the requirements and confirms your marriage as legal at a government office, such as the city clerk's office, and then have a separate wedding ceremony that is fully personalized and symbolic for your wedding.
Marriage licenses can be found online or in a county or city office. The city or county clerk or the recorder of deeds is usually where you want to go. You must have proof of ID with you to receive a license.
The submission of the marriage license is an essential final step for wedding officiants. The license is proof that the couple appropriately carried out the steps in the presence of authorized witnesses. It is usually the job of the person who will officiate your wedding to submit the marriage license so that the couple can later receive a marriage certificate.