How to have a friend legally officiate your California wedding

December 1 | Guest post by Uggh

You might remember Uggh as the person who helped you make your own brooch bouquet. But she's also the person who's gonna help you get your friend to officiate your California wedding.

Djinnaya and Jason's San Francisco wedding was also officiated by a friend.

I recently set about researching the requirements for having a family member officiate a wedding ceremony in California. Here's the crazy weird thing. There are two options:

  1. You can get your family member deputized for a day for a cost of $120.
  2. You can get him ordained online for free and then he can perform weddings for anybody when the mood strikes him. Hell, he could start a whole wedding business if he wanted.

I went online and did a little research into the two options, just to make sure I was reading this correctly because it still baffles me, but yes, in fact, this is the way it works in California (I can't vouch for other states; I have a sneaking suspicion that there might be some additional requirements in other jurisdictions). At any rate, I thought someone out here might be interested in how this works, so here is a summary.

Getting Deputized for a Day

This comes from the San Francisco County website:

CA Family Code Section 401(b) allows the Commissioner of Civil Marriages in the County to appoint deputy marriage commissioners to solemnize marriages in California. In San Francisco County, Deputization will be granted on a San Francisco County issued marriage license only. A photocopy of the marriage license must be presented at time of deputization. Marriage ceremony must be performed in California.

[Note from Sarah: it also appears that if the couple is using a "private" marriage license, the ceremony has to be performed in San Francisco County.]

Person must be at least 18 years old
Person is not required to be a California resident.
Person must be fluent in the English language.
Person will be required to take the oath of office swearing/affirming to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California.
Person must appear in person in the Office of the County Clerk with valid legal photo identification.
Deputization service is offered on a walk-in basis Monday-Thursday, 8:00am-11:30am and 2:00pm-3:30pm only.
Religious wording and references are not allowed during the ceremony.
Fee is $120.00 payable to SF County Clerk.
Process takes approximately 30 minutes.
The Office of the County Clerk has the right to refuse deputization of a person, if the person is unable to complete the paperwork correctly and/or fails to meet the above requirements. If requirements above cannot be met, please check other CA County websites for its program requirements.

So, beyond the fairly restrictive times when you can get deputized, there is that hefty $120 price tag (a commissioner-led service costs $75 in San Francisco; it's cheaper in other counties). After shelling out big bucks to reserve the fourth floor gallery and borrow a few chairs, I was in no mood to fork over another $120 so that we could (hopefully) get my brother deputized on the day of the wedding — especially since this would leave us with the same uncertainty we would have if we waited to get an appointment with a Commissioner.

Getting Ordained Online

California Family Code section 400(a) allows "[a] priest, minister, rabbi, or authorized person of any religious denomination" to solemnize a marriage. [Sarah's emphasis.] So the question is, what does this mean and how is it possible that filling out a form on a website will qualify? I'm still noodling through the nuances of this question, but it seems that yes, indeed, an online marriage church will qualify. As crazy as it sounds, nothing in the California marriage statutes requires that the minister file credentials with the state or county, either. The county and state are removed entirely from any responsibility for verification of our officiant's credentials. The State does not maintain a central registry of members of the clergy.

All of this means that yes, you can get your friends or family ordained online and the marriage will still be legal, provided that the marriage license is filled out properly and returned to the issuing county within ten days after the ceremony. So. How do you choose an online church? I went searching and settled on the following criteria:

  • Free (or as close to free as possible)
  • Easy
  • No requirement that the person being ordained ascribe to specific religious beliefs

Using these criteria, I rejected the Universal Life Ministries as having just a smidge too much preachiness and miscellaneous fees that I didn't want to pay. Then I found the American Marriage Ministries, which had as their Guiding Principles:

  • All people have the right to celebrate marriage according to their values.
  • The right to perform marriage belongs to all people.
  • Those engaging in marriage have the right to decide how and by whom their wedding ceremony is conducted.

These principles sounded good, and although they had various "ministry" and "credentials" packages that you can buy, becoming ordained is a free service. Since there is no licensing requirement in California, and California law does not require ministers to provide proof of their credentials, we didn't need to purchase any of their various ministry packages, either. I filled out their form with my brother's information, and in under five minutes, he was ordained to perform our ceremony.

If you want to know more about California's officiant requirements, you can find everything you need to know about who can perform a marriage ceremony in California Family Code Sections 400-402.

Legal Duties of the Officiant

The legal duties of the officiant are spelled out in California Family Code sections 420-426. Essentially, there are three requirements:

  1. That the couple declare that they are "husband and wife" in front of the officiant and one or two witnesses. The statute reads: "No particular form for the ceremony of marriage is required for solemnization of the marriage, but the parties shall declare, in the physical presence of the person solemnizing the marriage and necessary witnesses, that they take each other as husband and wife." [In case you're curious, this is the statute that is at the center of the Marriage Equality fight in California, which seeks to eliminate the "husband and wife" language in order to allow same-sex marriages. And, in case you're not sure where I stand on that issue, I'm all for it — see our White Knot badge.]
  2. That the couple, witnesses and officiant sign a Marriage License issued by a county in the State of California.
  3. That the officiant return the Marriage License to the issuing county within 10 days of the ceremony.

The minister/officiant must:

Sign and print or type upon the marriage license a statement, in the form prescribed by the State Department of Public Health, showing all of the following:

(a) The fact, date (month, day, year), and place (city and county) of solemnization.
(b) The printed names, signatures, and mailing addresses of at least one, and no more than two, witnesses to the ceremony.
(c) The official position of the person solemnizing the marriage,or of the denomination of which that person is a priest, minister, rabbi, or other authorized person of any religious denomination.
(d) The person solemnizing the marriage shall also type or print his or her name and mailing address.

(Calif. Fam. Code section 422.)

And that's it for the legal requirements. Now I just have to figure out what my officient is gonna wear…

Anyone else have any more advice on having a friend or family member officiate a wedding?

  1. I officiated my cousin Lacey's wedding in October. I got my ordination through ULC. The only real problem we ran into is we never rehearsed because her dad kept running off and doing other things. It was pitch black outside when we finally tried to sort of rehearse.

    3 agree
  2. I can't verify the current-ness of their information, but the ULC has a handy guide to wedding laws by state, as well as a few countries outside the US.
    Interactive map ahoy!

    1 agrees
  3. I'm so jealous! North Carolina marriage laws are so picky…they specifically don't allow marriages by ULC ordained ministers and require a church minister to be able to prove association with a church by their taxes. Court magistrates are the only government officials who can perform marriages, and you can't get them to come outside a courthouse unless you personally know one. Finding someone to marry us was a nightmare…word of advice: go to Florida to get married! Any notary republic can marry you there.

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  4. We were married by a friend, Adam, who is an ordained Moravian minister in South Carolina. But, he's the go-to guy to perform weddings for just about everyone we hung out with in college, so he's married folks in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts as well. Apparently it's very easy to "transfer" your ordination to other states if you're ordained in one state. According to Adam, he filled out and mailed in a one-page form with a copy of the paper saying he's a minister, and bam! he had access to the line "By the power vested in me by the State of New Jersey…."

    1 agrees
  5. Also! Note that California laws for marriage solemnization do change by county – they're not the same statewide! As noted, the costs for deputization and court ceremonies do vary (cheaper in Alameda County across the bay, for example). The county clerks who prepare marriage licenses are well equipped to help you navigate exactly what you need to meet that county's requirements. Some require the ordained minister to register in advance, others ask that they bring the signed marriage license in with their ordination certificate, some require it done by mail. Most licenses in CA can be obtained at least 30 days in advance of the ceremony, which is time enough for online ordination if needed.

    3 agree
    • I was ordained through ULC and American Marriage Miniseries… I just want to make sure they I am legal to marry my friends… They got they marriage license in Sutter County and want to be married at Crissy Field in San Francisco… Is there anything I need to do in San Francisco to make sure this all goes smoothly? Thank you so much for all of your help…

      2 agree
      • Hi Jodi, and congrats on your ordination. There are only a few states who disregard this particular ordination, but this is California, and we have one of the most lax governments when it comes to marriage licensing. As long as it is a marriage of public record, you may acquire the license in any county in the state. I actually have a wedding coming up at Crissy Field myself in less than a month. :) As far as you are concerned, you don't need to do anything special to perform a ceremony in SF. Depending on the size of wedding, the couple may want to get a permit to use the space for a wedding. The counties are sticklers for how the forms are filled out. EMPHATICALLY STRESS to the witness(es) – 2 allowed, only one required – they remain in the lines and fill out their info completely and as legibly as possible. Test your pen in advance to ensure it is good to go. If any of you fail to do this properly, you'll have to go into the Sutter County Clerk's office and pay for a duplicate. A pain in the arse, to be sure. When you fill out your section, just sign your name, print and put your address. When it asks title and denomination you will enter "minister" and "non denomination". Then you return it quickly (expected within 10 days, but the sooner you do, the sooner they can record and have it made official retroactively) so they can order their copy. It is easier than it feels. I remember my first wedding several years ago. I was so stressed about what I was doing. It's actually quite simple.

        If you have questions and would like to speak to me, feel free to search for my website and give a call. I wouldn't mind. (My business is self branded. It may be posted attached to this but I'm not sure and am not super aware of the rules here and want to respect them.)

        PS: As an officiant and event planner, I have my entire staff ordained through the same ministry you are. This covers our clients should they have hired someone besides me to officiate and that person doesn't show up, or is delayed too much. The 'show' must go on!

        My best, Jen Antoniou

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  6. I had a friend officiate my wedding. I was her third wedding and she surprised me by how knowledgeable she was about the process. She made it easy for us.

    PS – LOVE the Pulgas Water Temple (pictured in the post.) It's one of the most beautiful and fairly inexpensive places to get married in N. Cal.

    4 agree
  7. This is brilliant!! I was just thinking about writing to our Tribe here on this very topic! I love that you found the wording required. Because we are two women, we truly can say whatever we want but *just in case* Prop 8 is finally over before our wedding next June, we'd like to have the legal words in there. Wouldn't it suck if our marriage could be legal but we didn't have everything needed to make it legal during the ceremony?? Yes! A good friend has already gotten herself ordained for us. We're pretty stoked!

    PS: I found this website with loads of information on California. A lot of reading but it might help with the legality of it all.
    http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/calawquery?codesection=civ&codesection=ccp&codesection=fam&codesection=gov&codebody=civil+marriage&hits=20

    1 agrees
  8. thank you so much for this post! we just asked a good friend to officiate our wedding so i was just beginning researching this process. much obliged!

    4 agree
  9. Thank you, thank you, thank you! We've asked my brother to officiate our CA wedding and before today I had made one unorganized and skittish attempt to find out just *how* to accomplish that. This is perfect!

    7 agree
  10. It is SUPER SUPER SUPER easy to officiate a wedding in California! I just performed my friend's wedding last month. All I did was register at the Universal Life Church-for free. That's it. My friend took care of getting a wedding license and all I had to do was fill it out. In CA it is uniquely easy to perform a wedding there is no central office to register with. You just register with Universal Life Church, fill out the license, and mail it in. Period.

    (I work independently and was in no way PAID or asked to post anything on behalf of ULC)

    4 agree
    • Thanks so much! I just got asked a few days ago to officiate my best friend and her future wife's wedding in CA so of course I want to make sure all my ducks are in a row. This has been such an enlightening post!

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  11. Alaska does the same thing – anyone can be "deputized" in essence to perform a ceremony. Hence I don't think very many people do the courthouse thing. At any rate I can't find any info on how to do that up here. :) Guess they figure everyone's got a friend!

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  12. I wonder if Dudeism and/or Pastafarianism count as religious groups in Washington! I have been an ordained ULC minister for many years, but don't know if my atheism disqualifies me. :) Anyway, I want to have my brother officiate the wedding between me and my partner, and maybe he'd like the Dudeism thing better too.

    1 agrees
    • Even though I'm in Australia, I got ordained in the Church of the Latter-Day Dude a couple of years ago. You know, just in case I'm ever asked to officiate a wedding in the states… I was thinking a unity White Russian cocktail would be suitable :-)

      http://dudeism.com/ordination/

      3 agree
  13. We had my husband's uncle officiate our wedding- in Sacramento. Rather than get ordained, he went through the county/state for a license to perform a single ceremony. My cousin, however, did get ordained online prior to officiating another cousin's wedding.

    1 agrees
  14. I'm so jealous of your wedding laws. In the UK you can either have a religious service in a church, or a non-religious civil ceremony by a registrar. Makes it trickier than I think it needs to be (I'd love an outdoors, religious, legal wedding but that's not possible in the UK).

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  15. We had my sister and hubby's brother (who were also the MOH and BM!) ordained with ULC for our Sonoma County, California wedding; my sister is Agnostic, and Hubby's brother is Christian.

    You don't have to purchase any of the certificates, etc. at ULC. It's all optional. We even went down to the County to see what they needed, and all they wanted was for the minister(s) to fill out the marriage certificate.

    It did get a little tricky because there were two of them. They both performed the Ceremony, and when it came to signing the marriage certificate, they played rock-paper-scissors for the spot, and the "loser" signed as the witness. :)

    3 agree
  16. Thank you for the in depth info! My friend (also an attorney) got ordained through AMM to marry my husband and I. I am getting ordained through AMM as well to marry my cousin and her fiancé.

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  17. The requirements allow an "authorized person of any religious denomination" to perform the "ceremony." It doesn't say who must authorize, if anybody, or what authorization means. If, in your religious tradition, marriage ceremonies are performed by family elders, the state would be hard pressed to say that they are not "authorized…[within the]…religious denomination." As for the ceremony, none is truly required. "Declare" doesn't necessarily mean in spoken words, and signing the certificate could be considered the necessary declaration. Or taking part in the ceremony and circling the bride three times could be considered a declaration. Indeed in many customs, the bride and groom have no speaking role in the ceremony. That includes orthodox Jews for example.

    So it boils down to a bride and groom signing a certificate in front of an officiator and witnesses, where the officiator is a person who believes that he is authorized according to his belief system. Thus it's up to an individual to authorize himself. There's no other way it could be done. Otherwise, it would work with religions that have a specific hierarchy, such as Catholicism where positions are dictated from the Pope on down. But it wouldn't work with religions whose families have been members for thousands of years before there were any certifying bodies. Even among religions, who gets to certify comes down to who people are willing to accept. A person certified as a rabbi by a union or reform rabbis might not have his authority recognized by an orthodox rabbi. So even within mainstream religions, it comes down to some members of a religion appointing themselves to determine whether somebody else of the religion meets the criteria. So if you declare yourself a Deist, you'd be qualified by definition.

    On line ordinations are rip offs, since the people who do them are self appointed. Anybody has the right to establish a Church, and then ordain people. So I hereby ordain anybody reading this post who says "I agree to uphold the terms outlined in this post." There you go, it's legal. You can now perform weddings.

    3 agree
  18. Thank you so much for this article! I got ordained by ULC for another friend's wedding next year, but I've been roped into officiating a CA wedding in two weeks. The Family Code's been doing my head in trying to parse what it says lest I screw up legal paperwork.

    0 agree
    • The certificate itself merely has a place for the bride, groom, two witnesses and the officiator to sign. (I think it might also ask for a title). There's not much to screw up. It just needs to be signed and filed. And there's no requirement that the officiator show any documents attesting to qualifications. So there's not much paperwork to screw up.

      A lot of the paperwork is done up front. Aside from what I mentioned, the rest gets filled in ahead of time at the County Clerk's office. The couple must apply in person, present ID, give appropriate information, and be prepared to give the names they wish to be known by after the wedding. Then they have 90 days to get married.

      The officiator has 10 days to file (i.e. register) the marriage certificate with the county recorder, which is often the same as the county clerk's office. The certificate must be legible and unambiguous. It must be reproducible, and can't have "white out" or erasure marks or anything crossed out.

      Essentially it means that the Clerk's office knew from the beginning that the couple wanted to get married, and returning it is just executing a contract already on file.

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  19. I am getting married in Monterey County and this helped me so much! I also did some sources cross-referencing and everything seems to match what everyone else says. I really wanted our family friend, who has a great sense of humor and public personality, to marry us and California makes it super easy.

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  20. My brother changed his life plans and decided he wanted to be a Pastor, he's my best friend in the whole world so i was thrilled when we had the idea for him to marry us, we are getting married at a destination (2 hours away) on a saturday evening and leaving for our honeymoon that night, and my brother lives in Nevada and has to get on a plane to make it back to school that monday so i don't know how he would get the license to the court house and I'm sure its closed on sunday so how would we go about that??

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    • I am certain this has been handled already, as it was written about 6 weeks ago, but in the interest of future readers who have the same question, here is the answer. You have 10 days, in the state of California, to return the completed marriage license to where it was issued and can do so by mail. I remember clearly the first wedding I ever did… I went immediately to a mail box and sent it off. I have never had an issue, so that is a relief! :) Also, I was ordained by another ministry, and I am sure they do not sanction same-sex marriage… so in the interest of making sure it is all legit for me to perform any marriage ceremony I may choose to, I have been ordained by ULC, for free. I did not purchase the additional materials available.

      PS… refreshing to see a no-drama policy. Wish everyone had one. :)

      0 agree
      • This information was very helpful!
        I don't subscribe to any religions, and am trying to get one of my best friends to do my wedding.
        I just have one question, what to write for "the official position of the person solemnizing the marriage."
        It may be a dumb question, but I don't want to screw anything up!
        Would we just write "ordained citizen"…?

        1 agrees
        • You could just put down "reverend." That would apply to any revered person of any religion.

          0 agree
      • Update: apparently the 10 days is a guideline for officiants to be on the ball for couples. I had a groom insist on turning it in himself (was not a public license) and he waited over a month. Didn't phase the clerk's office, and SF has the strictest and most annoying and unyielding people ever. So if more than 10 days have passed you by, just either send it in, or drop it off. I'd wager the odds are in your favor.

        0 agree
  21. Thanks for all this information! A friend asked me to officiate their wedding on the beach in California. I am a strong supporter of marriage but I think the state has their hand way to much into it. Anyway I hope this works! They are getting married in 2 weeks, (2 week engagement yay). Speaking of all this, how am I still single?

    1 agrees
  22. Thanks a lot for this super informative post! We are planning to have a friend officiate our wedding, and this is so helpful. So just a quick question, does the officiate have to return the form on himself? Or is that okay for us to return it for him? Because he will only be here for one day.

    Thanks for any comment!

    0 agree
    • Technically, in the state of CA, the officiant is supposed to return the paperwork. I often mail it same day. However, how would they know? :) Once in a while I have a couple that insists on returning it themselves. Best wishes to you both!

      0 agree
  23. This is great info. Thanks for all the research and effort you put into this.
    My only question is the Marriage License that the couple, you & witnesses have to sign. Where is the source ? Is it online to print out ? Is it obtained from a literary or county or city clerk ? Do the couple have to go pay for it from somewhere and bring it to the officiant ?
    What's involved to get this Form ?

    0 agree

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