What do you see when you picture a marriage ceremony? At base level, you likely envision two members of a couple, and a third person (the officiant) presiding over the union. But, in some states, self-uniting marriage licenses give you the option of forgoing an officiant altogether.
What Is a Self-Uniting Marriage License?
A self-uniting marriage license is a legal document that allows a couple to be married in the absence of a third-party officiant. Self-uniting marriages are sometimes referred to as “Quaker” marriages because the custom as we largely know it today originated among the Religious Society of Friends.
That’s right—you can declare yourselves married. But going this route doesn’t make the ritual any less special, solemn, or serious. To help you navigate the process, we consulted experts Tracey Gordon, Lindsey Keenan, and Lisa Marie Chimento from the state of Pennsylvania, where self-uniting marriages go back centuries thanks to the state's strong Quaker roots. Read on for all the necessary legal nitty-gritty and planning know-how, plus tips and ideas for making your self-uniting ceremony feel extra unique.
Meet the Expert
• Tracey Gordon is the Register of Wills of the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her office oversees the city’s marriage license bureau.
• Lindsey Keenan is the head of the marriage license bureau for the city of Philadelphia.
• Lisa Marie Chimento is a lead planner with Kaleidoscope Weddings, an event planning firm with multiple offices in the Philadelphia area.
The History of Quaker Weddings
Quakers are members of the Religious Society of Friends, a branch of Protestantism that split off from the Church of England in the 1650s. To escape religious persecution in England and later in the Massachusetts colony, Quakers established communities in the Delaware Valley. This included present-day Pennsylvania, which was founded by a Quaker scholar named William Penn.
“Quakers believe they have a direct connection to God and don’t need a middleman,” explains Register Gordon. To that extent, they also don’t require a minister or officiant to sanctify a marriage in the eyes of God. In contrast with Protestantism, Quaker weddings happen without much pomp and ceremony. Couples who wish to marry present their intent to their meeting, or congregation, and then, on a selected date of worship, they participate in the silent worship of the meeting until they feel moved or called to declare themselves married.
As religious freedom became a founding principle of the United States of America, so followed the freedom to marry as one deemed fit. In modern years, several U.S. states have adopted the Quaker tradition of self-uniting marriages as a way to allow citizens to uphold their personal religious beliefs (or, perhaps, a lack thereof) and still become officially married in the eyes of the law.
Self-uniting marriage licenses have also proven vital during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing frontline and essential workers to secure the healthcare benefits of their partners and more during particularly uncertain times. Keenan says that pre-pandemic about 40% of the couples her office saw opted for self-uniting marriage licenses. In 2020, however, 70% of couples opted for self-uniting licenses.
“With COVID, wedding chapels are backed up with appointments, and [religious spaces] have only allowed a certain amount of people to attend ceremonies,” Keenan says. “People are opting for a self-uniting license because it’s easier.”
Self-Uniting Marriage Licenses FAQs
Where can I get a self-uniting marriage license?
Self-uniting marriage licenses can be legally obtained in eight U.S. states (California, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Nevada, Pennsylvania) and in the District of Columbia. That said, requirements and stipulations do vary by state, and sometimes even vary by counties within a state. In Maine, for example, only followers of certain religious faiths (Quaker and Baháʼí) are permitted to obtain self-uniting marriage licenses, while Pennsylvania and D.C. will grant self-uniting licenses regardless of religious affiliation.
How do I obtain a self-uniting marriage license?
In most of these states, you’ll need to appear in person and with your partner at your local marriage license bureau or county clerk’s office in order to apply for a marriage license. California and Colorado do allow for proxy marriages, and therefore proxy marriage license applications, in certain circumstances.
The pandemic has drastically altered how many of these offices conduct business, so be sure to check their website for new operating procedures first.
You’ll each need to come prepared with one to two forms of identification, historical information about your parents (full birth names, birth dates, birth cities and states, and, if applicable, dates of death), and if you have been married previously, a certificate of divorce or death certificate of a spouse. Stipulations vary by state, so check with your county clerk’s office for official requirements.
How much does a self-uniting marriage license cost?
The cost of a self-uniting marriage license will depend on where you get it. In D.C., a marriage license is $45, regardless of if you do or do not marry in the presence of an officiant. In Colorado, it’s $30. Costs vary by the county in Pennsylvania, but in the city of Philadelphia, a self-uniting marriage license is $100, while a traditional marriage license is only $90.
Not all marriage bureaus accept credit cards as a form of payment for a marriage license. Be sure to bring cash or a check if necessary.
Will I need witnesses for my self-uniting wedding ceremony?
Depends on where you get hitched. Pennsylvania, for example, requires two witnesses above the age of 18 to legally witness and sign off on a self-uniting marriage. Maine also requires two witnesses. Colorado and D.C. do not have any witness requirements, while Nevada requires the signature of one witness.
Do we have to exchange vows?
Totally up to you! Personalized vows can be a beautiful addition to a self-uniting marriage ceremony, but they are not necessary.
Can we still have someone else perform the ceremony?
Absolutely! Many couples who opt for a self-uniting marriage license do so as a way to have someone who is not officially ordained preside over their ceremony. The law doesn’t stipulate how you actually get married, just that you come back with the necessary paperwork and/or witness signatures, so feel free to ask a family member, friend, mentor, etc. to do the honors.
Tips for Planning a Quaker Wedding
Explain how the ceremony works.
“These are more spiritual ceremonies than religious, and everyone marches to the beat of their own spirit,” says Chimento. “I do not think there is a wrong way to host your Quaker wedding.” That said, it will help things run more smoothly—and help guests truly appreciate the solemnity of the occasion—if you explain ahead of time how the ceremony will run. This can be done in a ceremony program distributed to guests as they enter the ceremony site, or with an announcement at the start of the ceremony.
Get guests involved.
A true Quaker wedding would be held during a worship meeting. After a couple declares themselves married, a period of open worship would follow, in which anyone present who felt moved to share a sentiment or well wishes for the couple could do so. This is a beautiful tradition to incorporate into your own self-uniting wedding. To get the ball rolling, Chimento suggests asking a few close friends or family members to prepare something in advance. This will encourage other guests to participate, and give them a solid benchmark for what feels appropriate to share.
Mark the end in a noticeable way.
Per Chimento, it’s a good idea to have the person who “opens” the ceremony also be the one to close it. “They should be able to intuit when guests are done sharing, take the microphone back to thank everyone, and have something prepared to cap the ceremony,” she says. Another way to mark the conclusion of the ceremony could be for the couple to sign their marriage license in front of guests, and then kiss. There’s also the option of queuing up the music and processing back down the aisle. Looking for something a little less traditional? Chimento suggests ending the ceremony in a group dance around the couple, or by asking the group to take a collective sip of their drinks to seal the deal.
Have everyone sign the marriage certificate.
“Anything in the realm of ‘everyone contributing’ is very accepted in Quaker ceremony traditions,” says Chimento. To that end, some couples will bring a ketubah-like marriage certificate to their self-uniting wedding ceremony and ask all of their guests to serve as witnesses. “Having guests sign on their way in and then having the couple sign at the end is a nice touch,” she adds.