Who Can Legally Perform a Marriage?

Here's everything you need to know about the legalities of who can officiate a wedding ceremony.

Two brides in white wedding attire exchange vows during a wedding ceremony officiated by a civil officiant.

Kelvin Murray / Getty Images

Whether you're getting ready to tie the knot with your partner or you've been asked to officiate a family member or friend's wedding, you probably have some questions about the legalities of the whole process. Before you do anything—and no matter who you choose to officiate your wedding—it's essential that you first check the laws in your local county (or the county in which you are getting married!) to ensure your chosen officiant fits the bill 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 account for, and some states don't allow certain officiant types to perform legal marriages. In general, you'll find that the person who can legally perform the marriage is one of several types of officiants: Civil, professional, ordained, or religious.

When it comes to choosing the right person, this is something you, as partners, should discuss carefully before you begin planning the wedding. "Regardless of whether couples choose a friend or family member, or a professional, their celebrant needs to listen and hold space for them, both during the planning and writing phases, and then during the ceremony itself," says Lewis King, the 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 outline the difference between each kind of wedding officiant, with input from an expert, so that you can make the best—and legal—decision for your big day.

Meet the Expert

Lewis King is the executive director of American Marriage Ministries.

What Is a Civil Officiant?

A civil officiant is a person who has gone through a formal, legal process to become recognized 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 perform the marriage.

What Is an Ordained Officiant?

If a couple would like 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, nonprofit organizations, and online services that offer the ability to get legally recognized as an officiant. Note that state laws vary, and many will require the marriage officiant to also be registered with the state where the marriage ceremony is taking place ahead of the wedding.

What Is a Professional Officiant

There are many non-religious and non-civil officiants, also called celebrants, who offer marriage officiant services as well as guidance for writing vows and planning a wedding ceremony (this may include non-denominational ceremonies, interfaith ceremonies, and spiritual ceremonies). These professionals are licensed officiants who have lots of experience officiating weddings. If you're not sure that you want a civil or religious officiant, and you don't have a friend or family member performing 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 shared vision for the ceremony," advises King. "Since [the couple] is probably hiring someone off the internet, it's important to read reviews and to find someone who specializes in the kind of ceremony they have in mind." 

What Is a Religious Officiant?

A religious officiant is someone who is ordained by a specific religious denomination as a member of the clergy and is typically a leader within their faith, like a minister, priest, imam, or rabbi, who performs marriage ceremonies at their place of worship. Take note that while many people can become religiously ordained to perform a marriage, some states have limits to who they consider a religious officiant.

Keep in mind that if you choose to have a religious officiant perform your marriage, this does not mean you must hold the ceremony at a specific place of worship. Make sure to check with the officiant prior to the wedding planning process beginning to ensure that they can perform the ceremony at your desired location.

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