Hacking the law: On the role of the marriage officiant in the State of Washington

The role of the officiant in marriages in the State of Washington is kind of strange.

For example, the wedding license is filled out in triplicate. One copy goes to the county clerk. The second copy goes to Olympia, the state capital. The third copy goes to the officiant. But the law doesn't say what the officiant must do with that third copy. There is no law that requires the officiant to keep records of the weddings at which he or she has served as officiant, nor is there any law that requires the officiant to produce the copy of the license in case of a dispute. It's just given to the officiant with no strings attached.

And then there's the issue of which people are qualified to act as officiants: In addition to the usual list of government officials, the law authorizes "any regularly licensed or ordained minister ... or similar official of any religious organization." Although the term "religious organization" is defined, the definition is broad enough that any organization can be a religious organization by simply claiming to be one, at which point it can nominate anyone it chooses as a minister.

Okay, so basically anybody can serve as an officiant if they are willing to work at it.

But suppose you find out years later that your minister was not properly ordained, or that he or she lied about his qualifications? No worries; the State of Washington has you covered there, too:

RCW 26.04.060: Marriage before unauthorized cleric

A marriage solemnized before any person professing to be a minister ... or similar official of any religious organization in this state ... is not void, nor shall the validity thereof be in any way affected [on these grounds], if such marriage be consummated with a belief on the part of the persons so married, or either of them, that they have been lawfully joined in marriage.

So if your officiant turns out to have been unqualified, don't worry. The marriage is still valid. So much for that sitcom plot.

Indeed, only one partner needs to believe that the marriage is valid in order for it to become so. One of the partners could knowingly hire a fake officiant, but as long as the other partner believes that the officiant is real, the marriage is still valid.

But wait, it's even more than that. Neither party needs to believe in the officiant's legitimacy. They merely need to believe that the marriage is valid.

Now things get circular.

Suppose both partners convince themselves (by delusion, or mistaken understanding, or by reading the law quoted above) that they found a loophole that permits comedian Don Novello in the character Father Guido Sarducci to be an officiant at their wedding. The fact that they believe it to be true makes it true.

The conclusion I draw from this is that the role of the officiant in weddings solemnized in the State of Washington is entirely perfunctory. The important thing is that the paperwork gets filed with the county and state.

Comments (31)
  1. Michael Kohne says:

    The first rule of bureaucracy is 'We don't care, just fill in the form!'

  2. OldFart says:

    I’m afraid that you will need to dig into the laws of Massachusetts to convince me that this has any bearing on the Howells.

  3. It's not strange if you consider that marriage law originates from church procedures (we're working on fixing that.)

    The Anglican church has established rules for religious procedures; a common thread is that the religious action needs a "minister". Usually this has to be someone duly recognized by the official church.

    But weddings are special – the *bride and groom* are the actual "ministers" of the act, and the official church guy is just there to watch it happen. So the "it's a marriage if the bride and groom believe it's a marriage" makes total sense.

  4. Looks like this diverged when the Roman church split into the Western and Eastern halves. Catholic-based branches of Christianity behave as I describe earlier, but Eastern Orthodoxy-based branches have the official church guy as the minister.


  5. Brian_EE says:

    So, Raymond can perform marriages in Washington for fans of his blog when they get married.

    It's an interesting article, but I wonder what circumstance happened that this came to Raymond's attention…

  6. Alex says:

    As a Washington state resident I know of at least 3 marriages of couples getting married by friends who got specifically ordained to perform the ceremony. Also note that combined with the large amount of foreigners in this area, visa rules (fiancé, H1, Green Card, etc.), confusing wording of the marriage license (see the civil vs. religious question), and typos getting added at every step (see foreigners above); I'm not surprised the lawmakers just gave up and decided to take the "whatever, if there's a form we're good" approach.

  7. Louisiana/Nevada lawyer says:

    Most States have putative marriage laws that protect against people's understandable ignorance of the various requirements for marriage in each jurisdiction. You know because marriage is an "objective" covenant from "God" that somehow varies depending on which political sundivision you find yourself.

  8. bmm6o says:

    I think Unauthorized Cleric is one of the specializations added in AD&D 4th Ed.  He can cast Dispel Marriage but WA residents get a bonus to saving throw, and people caught in the area of effect can avoid damage by actively disbelieving.

  9. Yukkuri says:

    @bmm6o Thanks for the grin, I needed that :D

  10. Nico says:

    They probably just accidentally ordered the marriage forms in triplicate instead of duplicate, and didn't want to waste them.

    Or it's related to my favorite quote from Civilization 4 (probably by Oscar Wilde): "The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy." :)

  11. Erbo says:

    Colorado law actually goes one step further, allowing two people to marry each other *without* benefit of an officiant. Some friends of mine recently did just that. (Bonus points: They're a same-sex couple!)

  12. Gabe says:

    A marriage is just a special kind of contract, mainly for handling joint property. So long as all participants enter into it knowingly, there's no reason that there needs to be a special officiant.

    In fact, many states have a concept of a "common law marriage", which is just a de facto marriage. In other words, if you've been acting like you were married for long enough, you're effectively married.

  13. Kate says:

    The upside of this is you can basically do whatever you want at your wedding as long as you file the paperwork.

  14. Dog says:

    Is the "if anyone can show just cause why this couple cannot lawfully be joined together in matrimony, let them speak now or forever hold their peace" would prevent anyone from voiding the marriage anyway.

  15. Azarien says:

    "So if your officiant turns out to have been unqualified, don't worry. The marriage is still valid."

    It may be legally valid, but may not be valid according to the rules of that particular religion, which is a grave reason to worry about if you choose religious ceremony not only for bells and whistles but because you really believe in that religion.

    [Sorry for not being clear. I'm studying only the legal status of the marriage, not the religious status. -Raymond]
  16. cheong00 says:

    @Gabe: It's good to also note that just like when you're going to sign a big important contract, it's better to find someone with legal status as witness.

  17. Max says:

    It's another example of putting the "user experience" first, even if the intermediary between the user and the system was misbehaving. If the people involved believe that what they did was valid, then the system lets it stand, even if the officiant who signed the papers was unqualified to do it.

  18. DWalker says:

    Regarding the phrase "if anyone can show just cause why this couple cannot lawfully be joined together in matrimony, let them speak now or forever hold their peace", I can envision one of the relatives saying "I don't like the groom, this marriage is a bad idea", and the couple saying "shut up, we don't care what you think", and the wedding proceeds anyway!  What kind of "just cause" would anyone provide?  Claiming that one of the couple is still married to someone else?

  19. Kevin says:

    @Max: Now we just need to get computers to act like that (more often).

    @DWalker: That could work, if e.g. someone unknowingly failed to get a divorce/annulment (hey, another sitcom plot!) or (in ye olden days) if one of them is unknowingly the illegitimate child of the other's parent or something like that (one does have to wonder how you get all the way to the wedding ceremony without realizing either of these things, but…).

  20. Herah says:

    @DWalker:  Yes, exactly.  That wording dates from a time when it was easier to hide information.  An existing marriage would be just cause, or evidence that one partner was not who they said they were, or some other fraud that would invalidate the financial settlements.

  21. AKFrost says:


    I saw it more as Creature – Cleric. o: T, Tap any number of untapped WA-residents you control: Two target WA-residents become married (all counters on married creatures are treated as existing on both creatures at the same time, creatures may be only married to one creature at a time and cannot marry itself.). Your opponent may tap an equal or greater number of untapped WA-residents to counter this ability.

  22. kog999 says:


    When this creature leaves the battlefield remove all counters from target male creature and place them on target female creature.

    and separately

    Creature – Good Lawyer

    Pay $: Target creature gains protection from another target creature.

  23. Mr Cranky says:

    Why is the state involved in marriage at all?

    To enforce a vague and likely misunderstood tacit contract?  Cui bono?  Oh yeah… lawyers.

  24. cheong00 says:

    @Kog999: It more likely the ability is like this:

    Pay $: Counter the next time spell or ability targeting target creature or player.

    It has to be ability that need to be paid each time for you to gain protection.

  25. Mike says:

    Insanity that someone tricked during the ceremony can be held to the marriage. I guess it would be a loophole they don't want to open up and presumably the person that was tricked really thought they were going to get married (and were okay with it). Still something being valid because you thought it was seems like a bad law. Would be like an illegal search is valid because the pushy police officer scared you into believing you had no choice.

    [I think the state's point of view is that the ceremony is purely ceremony. What's important is that you get a marriage license and file it. Marriage licenses can be invalid. Ceremonies basically can't, because who's to say what a valid ceremony is? -Raymond]
  26. paysockee says:

    Moving a step further, can a partner serve as an officiant on his/her own marriage?

  27. Max says:

    @Mr Cranky: Because there are legal benefits involved with marriage? If you really don't want the state involved then you're free to have a purely religious ceremony and not notify the state, but then you won't to be able to file taxes as a couple or be recognized as the spouse at the hospital or anything like that.

    @Mike: It's because thinking you're married, only to find out later from a representative of the state that you weren't actually married, is likely to be troubling, troublesome, or possibly even outright traumatic, depending on your beliefs. The state simply doesn't have enough real interest in the qualifications of the person officiating the marriage to justify butting in on things after the fact.

  28. David Arthur says:

    As late as the 19th century, a Scottish couple could (at least in theory) form a binding marriage simply by introducing themselves as husband and wife. Wilkie Collins got a whole novel out of that one.

  29. Mr Cranky says:

    @Max: First part, I agree, but most churches do not.  Second part, you totally begged my question.

  30. Dylan says:

    @Mike: "something being valid because you thought it was" is the basis of contract law.  Reaching an agreement makes it real.

  31. bzakharin says:

    I don't know about other religions, but in Orthodox Judaism, there is a concept very similar to common law marriage. If you think you're married while consummating your marriage then you're married (as long as the marriage is allowed by Jewish Law in the first place, so no close relatives, for example). It doesn't even matter if you were religious at the time. I should know, my parents are an example. I'm not considered to be born out of wedlock. Though they had a traditional wedding something like 20 years after the fact, it makes little legal (religious) difference.

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