Sure, we love the pomp and circumstance—and flowers, and cake, and gowns—that go along with a traditional wedding, but when it comes to legally tying the knot, none of that is actually required. (And, let's be honest, it's never necessary if you don't want it to be!) To officially say "I do," all it really takes is a recognized officiant, a marriage license, and a few witnesses (and even those aren’t required in all states). And, while we often think a civil ceremony means jetting off to city hall, just the two of you, a civil ceremony can really take place anywhere and look however you'd like.
What Is a Civil Ceremony?
A civil ceremony is a non-religious, legal marriage ceremony presided over by a legal officiant.
As with wedding planning, it's important to remember that your wedding can be whatever you want it to be, whether it’s a trip to city hall, a totally intimate celebration with just your families, or a huge to-do. And, even though the civil ceremony will likely be smaller in size, that doesn't mean it has to be any less important. "Whether you have just the two of you or your most immediate family attending, give it as much priority as a larger wedding," say Julie Bunkley and Courtney Wolf of Invision Events. "You'll want the moments documented so hire a photographer if even for a short period of time, get your hair and makeup done, and consider having a bouquet."
Meet the Expert
- Julie Bunkley is the owner and creative director at Invision Events, a destination wedding planning studio based in Birmingham, Alabama. Courtney Wolf is the company's principal wedding planner.
So whether you’re saving up for the big celebration, want to get married before a major life change, or simply can’t wait to tie the knot, here’s what you need to know for having a civil ceremony now and a big reception later.
Do Your Research
It’s not as easy as waltzing into city hall with your IDs. Every state has its own set of rules when it comes to applying for a marriage license, so make sure to check first. Generally, a civil ceremony is subject to the same requirements as a religious one in regards to fees (such as venue and marriage license) and restrictions (age, et cetera). So, keep an eye out for fees, required documentation, and waiting periods. For instance, Thursdays and Fridays may be more popular days (i.e. longer lines) if you're thinking of city hall. Also, be sure to check if you'll need a witness (or two) or not.
Make sure to check your state's requirements because rules regarding witnesses and documentation vary.
Choose an Officiant
While, again, requirements vary from state to state—and, in some cases, by county—a civil ceremony is generally presided over by a legal official. That person can be a justice of the peace, county or court clerk, notary public, judge, or magistrate. If you go to the city hall, that person will be provided.
Decide Who to Invite
Having a civil ceremony doesn’t mean you have to skip the guest list entirely, and you may want to bring a few select people along with you. This is where those witnesses come into play. Some states require two witnesses over the age of 18, while others don’t require any witnesses at all. Sure, you can grab some strangers out of the waiting room, but why not give a few people you love the honor of signing your marriage license?
Consider inviting your parents and siblings for an intimate celebration, or add on a few close friends. While you’ll be having a wedding later to celebrate your union, this is the moment, so invite those closest to you to be a part of it. As for how you should invite guests, Bunkley and Wolf suggest being as personal as possible, especially considering the small guest list. "If you have time to send a personal note of invitation, that is the best way," they say. "No matter how small, being as intentional and personal as possible makes it more memorable and special." That said, if you're pressed for time, you can always make a phone call or send an e-vite.
Prioritize the Ceremony
Wolf and Bunkley say, "The most memorable weddings are always the most personal." So, how can you accomplish that? "Put your spin on your civil ceremony with your own personality through your outfits (whether new or from your current closet), how you announce to guests or social media, and how it's documented. Celebrate your love!"
To that point: Consider bringing a photographer to capture the day's special moments, as the civil ceremony is part of your wedding story. "Civil ceremonies can be incredibly special and powerful because of how intimate they are," says Valorie Darling, a photographer based in Los Angeles. "I usually hear that couples set off thinking it will be procedural and are surprised by how emotional it turned out to be, all of a sudden reciting vows to each other without anyone else. To capture this is something you'll return to—the purity of that moment together."
In addition, Darling says hiring a photographer for the civil ceremony has an added perk: "It's also an opportunity for your photographer to build a relationship so, on the big day, you're close and more relaxed, meaning your photographer can capture the wedding day with ease and you can enjoy living it."
Meet the Expert
Valorie Darling is a photographer based in Los Angeles. She has captured nearly 150 weddings in her time as a wedding photographer.
Celebrate Making It Official
You’re married! Mark the occasion in a way that feels special, whether it’s a champagne toast with just the two of you, a family dinner at home, or a late lunch after a midday ceremony. If you have witnesses or guests, make sure to include them in the fun. Then take a little time to revel in the moment together. We also love the idea of booking a room at a nice hotel for the night or heading out of town for the weekend for an early mini-moon.
Continue the Celebration
Yes, you’ll already be legally married by the time your wedding rolls around, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be just as special—especially since rules no longer apply! A few ideas we love?
- Include all the traditions you love, and skip the ones you don’t.
- Have a short and sweet ceremony to symbolize your union.
- Walk down the aisle with your father, or you and your partner can make your entrance together.
- Exchange vows that you’ve personalized, and include a reading or two that speak to you.
Since this part doesn’t have to be legally binding (been there, done that), ask whomever you wish to serve as officiant—no online ordination required. And don’t worry about explaining the situation to your guests—they’re coming together to celebrate the two of you, and your love story is still your love story, so there will definitely be happy tears, whether your officiant is registered or not.
Then, once you’ve had your “first kiss,” continue to celebrate however you'd like! Now all you have to do is decide which anniversary you’ll celebrate...
Reasons to Have a Civil Ceremony
Civil ceremonies can be appealing to couples for a variety of reasons, but a big one is the smaller price tag that accompanies them. If the civil wedding isn't followed by a religious ceremony and large-scale reception, the only costs are the fees that go along with it. If time is of the essence and you can't wait to start your lives together, a quick legal procedure can be far more attractive than the months of planning that go into larger weddings.
Interfaith to-be-weds may opt for a civil ceremony as a compromise to avoid the pitfalls of navigating both of their religions. Similarly, non-religious couples may not want a religious ceremony that doesn't feel particularly authentic to their beliefs.
Those with their sights set on an adventurous outdoor wedding could find themselves limited when it comes to the constraints of religious ceremonies—the Catholic Church, for example, won't conduct weddings outside of a church. A civil ceremony can be much more flexible in this case, which can be a major draw, especially for creative couples looking to design their own ceremony.
What is the difference between a civil union and a civil marriage?
A civil union is a legally recognized, non-marriage union whereas a civil marriage is a legal marriage with a non-religious ceremony. Semantically, a legal marriage can also be considered a civil union, but a civil union is not a marriage.
How long does a civil marriage ceremony take?
A civil marriage ceremony can take between 10 and 15 minutes. This can vary depending on what you choose to include in the ceremony as well as any paperwork or formalities that need to be completed beforehand.
Is a civil ceremony the same as a wedding?
A civil ceremony can be the same as the nuptial ceremony of a wedding for those who don't wish to include a religious ceremony. The civil ceremony is not the same as the wedding reception, or celebratory party, however. Usually, the civil ceremony takes place on a different day preceding the religious ceremony and reception.
Will my civil marriage be recognized by my religious community?
Civil marriages are usually not recognized by religious communities unless they are followed by a religious ceremony, though it's always best to check with a member of the clergy first. A religious marriage is a marital union recognized by the canons, traditions, and constraints of a specific religion. It is not acknowledged by the law until a marriage license is filed.
Does the Catholic Church recognize a civil marriage?
Catholic tradition does not recognize marriages that take place outside of a Catholic Church by Catholic individuals. A convalidation ceremony can transition a civil marriage to a Catholic marriage and have the union formally recognized by the Catholic Church.