A Few Guidelines for Your Civil Ceremony

Updated 08/19/14

Photo: Austin Gros

These days, civil wedding ceremonies are becoming as popular as religious ceremonies. Just because you've ruled out a church or synagogue as a ceremony site doesn't mean the only option is a quick ceremony at city hall. A civil ceremony can be the perfect answer for a couple who prefer to marry without specific religious affiliation. A civil ceremony can be short and functional or as formal as you wish, and it can be followed by a reception with a lunch, seated dinner, or simply champagne and cake. It can be held at your home or in a hotel, in a park or garden, or in the county clerk's office at city hall or the local Marriage License Bureau. What else do you need to know? Here are a few etiquette guidelines:

Who can perform the ceremony?

Depending on where you live, justices of the peace, superior court clerks, county clerks, judges or magistrates, township committee chairs, mayors or governors can perform legally binding ceremonies. The Universal Life Church will also ordain a person, but some states do not recognize the ordination; see their website for more information. Remember that some public officiants are not wiling to work outside their offices or after normal business hours. So if you want to wed in a rooftop garden at sunset, tell prospective officiants up front.

What official documents are needed?

A marriage license is required for any legally binding ceremony, but keep in mind that obtaining one takes time. Check specific requirements with your local Marriage License Bureau. If the ceremony will be in a clerk's office, remember to invite at least two close witnesses, such as close friends or relatives. Their participation will be more meaningful than having two office employees sign your marriage license.

What kinds of personal touches can we add?

The usual civil ceremony is a modernized adaptation from the Book of Common Prayer. It doesn't last much longer than a few minutes. Ask your officiant to contribute their own thoughts and good wishes for the future; you should also feel free to read passages from your favorite poems, books, or songs. It's also appropriate to include Scripture. Some couples write their own vows, but you should check this out with your officiant beforehand. No matter the scale of the wedding, don't forget to carry a bouquet and pin a boutonniere on your groom.

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