How to have a friend officiate your California wedding (…legally!)

Guest post by Uggh
You could be this guy in a top hat, officiating your friend's wedding!

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 there might be interested in how this works, so here is a summary of how to have a friend legally officiate your California wedding.

…Hold onto your hats, it's a little long!

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. 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 spouses.
  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.)

Are you getting married in San Francisco or Los Angeles?

These two California cities each have some particularities for folks getting married there — luckily we have OFFBEAT BRIDE CITY GUIDES for both SF and LA, full of all the nitty-gritty you need to know about getting married in each city:

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Comments on How to have a friend officiate your California wedding (…legally!)

  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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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….”

  4. 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.

    • 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…

      • 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

        • My question is: if a couple was married in San Diego County by a ULC minister but the couple never recorded the marriage license in the city clerk office. Are they legally married under California law? They believe they are not.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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!

  9. 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)

    • 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!

    • Hi Miriam , I just did the online ordination request form. I’m a bit confused on what steps to take next?

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