We are not particularly religious people. Okay, we’re not religious at all. We try our best to be spiritual, good people. Just not in an organized, Sunday-church-going type of way. So a church marriage was just not “us.” We’ll just be getting married at our reception site by a family member who is ordained.
But let’s say we weren’t lucky enough to have that option. It would be super weird and inconvenient to pay a religious leader we didn’t know or really even support to officiate our vows. Or what if we were atheist and didn’t want to go to the Justice of the Peace? Or get married on a boat or by a mayor?
Pennsylvania can be pretty cool.
Luckily, we live in the great state of Pennsylvania, where reverent, God-fearing people have accidentally paved the way for modern-day heathens. (At least I’m sure that’s how the 1700s group would view us.) Quakers played a huge role in the foundation of this state. One of the many laws that reflects that is self-uniting marriage. Because they traditionally have no clergy, when Quakers marry they don’t have an officiant, as it’s God marrying them, not any man.
This is why for all of its history Pennsylvania has allowed self-uniting marriages. So if you want to just write your own vows, you can. And skip the clergy fee. (Just make sure you have two witnesses.) I think it could be kind of beautiful. (Though I’m happy with our decision to have our family member involved; it means a lot to us.)
When you go in to get your license, be sure to mention right off the bat that you want a self-uniting marriage. Do your research before you apply. Some clerks might be jerks and refuse to give it to you. If you do get a jerk clerk, you really could, and I’d argue should, throw this ACLU case in their face.
Essentially what happened was that Allegheny county asked a couple if they were Quakers. They said no. So they refused to give them the license.
Let me recap: they asked them their religion, and because of their answer, refused them a government service. Allegheny county screwed up royally. So from what I understand they are now much more accommodating to couples who want to take the self-uniting route.
I also understand that they do not charge a fee for this service. This is not true in all counties.
Philadelphia county charges $90 in addition to the fee just to apply and get a normal license. Which may start to get close to the fee an officiant would charge, making this a budget wash. UPDATE: A reader was recently issued a self-uniting marriage license in Philadelphia county. Contrary to how it is presented on their website, the fee for that county is only an additional $10, making the entire affair $90 TOTAL.
If you live near a county other than the one you live in, try giving them a call to see what their fees (and jerk levels) are. In Pennsylvania, it doesn’t matter if your license is issued by a county other than the one you live in or the one you will be married in. As long as it comes from PA and you get married in PA, you’re good.
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Other states offer self-uniting marriage, too.
Here are some states that offer similar options, or just options that may be better for some more secular couples:
- Colorado also offers self-uniting marriages.
- UPDATE! Thanks to a reader comment, we now know that Washington DC‘s laws changed in 2013 to allow self-uniting marriages.
- UPDATE! Thanks to a reader comment, we now know that Wisconsin offers self-uniting marriages in much the same way Pennsylvania does. It was set up for specific religious purposes, but it is illegal to deny a couple a self-uniting license because of their religion. Meaning that as it goes it PA, it goes it Wisconsin.
- UPDATE! Thanks to a reader’s efforts, California now has a precedent for performing non-Quaker non-clergy marriages. (AKA self-uniting marriages where you don’t have to be a Quaker.)
- Let’s say you don’t have a religious leader in your family. In Massachusetts, anyone can become a Justice of the Peace for a day, specifically for the purposes of marrying a friend or family member. (Or just anyone.) The fee to apply is only $25, so most people would be saving money vs. a professional clergy member. And you can get married by anyone that’s super close to you. Or just anyone you want.
If you know of any other pretty cool state marriage laws pertaining to the officiating, let me know and I’ll add it to the list.
dang! what about oregon? and are you going to change it back so your email subscribers get full posts pretty please?!?
The only way I can find getting around the officiant in Oregon is to get married in front of a congregation that has a tradition of marrying people without one. ” All marriages, to which there are no legal impediments, solemnized before or in any religious organization or congregation according to the established ritual or form commonly practiced therein, are valid.” http://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/106.150
Which is good, if you’re a member of a religion that does that. Like the Quakers. But not quite as much free rein as in PA.
As for the emails, that’s really weird. I’ll have to look into it. I haven’t changed anything. When I switched my blog over to WordPress I subscribed to my own feed via email to make sure it was still going out. So I still get the emails, too, and they’ve been full articles. Thanks for bringing it to my attention…will do what I can!
Just wondering – what is to keep someone from actually getting married in another state, say NJ, and simply filling out that they were married in some PA city? Since the only other people that would know are their witnesses. Especially if you mail it back in PA.
I suppose nothing except the morality of those involved. I would worry about someone finding out and the legality of my marriage being in question.
I like the Massachusetts option! I’m a good heathen too 🙂
Yay for heathens! We should organize! Oh, wait…
(Yay for spirituality without some of the negative things that can sometimes happen within organized dogmatic religious practices.)
I love the picture at the top. A good friend of mine from college had another friend of ours get ordained online and he performed the ceremony – yes another way to put a theater degree to use, I guess. I don’t think it was really that expensive.
I like the Quaker idea and actually agree with the ideology behind it. I think it’s pretty cool.
That’s awesome! Even if it were expensive I imagine the ordination fees could be a wedding gift. 🙂 I love the ideology, too. I know there’s many protestant religions that feel the same way…there’s no man between you and God, but many of them still have clergy that officiate things like this. Love how the Quakers really follow through with the idea.
I didn’t even know this was an option! As always, you amaze me by figuring this stuff out! And that graphic is fantastic. Have a wonderful Valentine’s, sweet lady!
Thanks! I’m trying to be more Pinterest friendly, though sometimes I fail miserably. 🙂 Thanks for encouraging me to write about more wedding stuff back in June or July or whatever it was…I really had no idea where to go when all of this started.
hubby and I got married almost 38 years ago by a judge at the county building. Family was present and the court room actually was similar to a church. We had a reception at a buffet restaurant and the whole thing cost us around $100. Our son and his wife got married by a judge also but then had another ceremony in her grandparents back yard with a pig roast reception I’ve never even for an instant regretted how we did it.
Love it! I always envisioned those types of weddings in a small but nicely decorated office….in a court room sounds beautiful. And what a frugal way to do it! Your son’s backyard pig roast sounds like such a good idea, too. So much more relaxed!
This is so good to know. We are planning on getting married (we live in PA too) and as far as religious we feel the same way as you. Thanks for this post. Will be using this information in the future.
Awesome! So glad it could potentially help! I’m currently looking up all your wedding posts….loving it!
Thanks for the Quaker history lesson. I enjoyed that. I live in Wisconsin. I was married by a nondenominational pastor. We paid him $100. Two maintenance men were our witnesses and photographer. I don’t have a single photo of the day that is in focus or doesn’t have a finger in the frame. Oh well the good thing is I never regretted getting married this was.
That’s an amazing budget wedding! And it sounds like it led to happily ever after!
We have an officiant, mainly because our venue is an Anglican venue and wouldn’t let us marry until we had this and that in place.
Some churches do that. And more power to you if that’s what religion you are or where you want to get married. It just wasn’t for us. 🙂
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DC allows people to marry themselves!
Awsome! Thanks so much for the info! Will update the post to include it!
Wow! That’s awesome that PA allows self-uniting marriages! That saves a ton of money and to mention time.
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Just applied for our self-uniting license in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) without a single problem!! Love that this was an option for us!
That is such awesome news! I’m glad there were no problems! And congratulations! I wish you both many years of happiness!
Could you answer a question for me….I just went to get my marriage certificate (self uniting) and we are both so loss on where we suppose to sign on the part you send/take back….could you help.
First of all, congrats, Scheniqia! I wish you the best in your marriage and hope it’s a beautiful day!
As far as where to sign, I’m going to defer to your county. I’d give them a ring, because I’m not sure if the actual layout changes from county to county. I know that you, your spouse, and two witnesses will have to sign, but I can’t say for sure where. The good news is that they do this pretty frequently, so they should be able to answer this for you with relative ease!
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Is this Still a real marraige. Can you change you last name and put married on your taxes and stuff like that
Absolutely 100% yes. You get a normal marriage certificate after you turn in the post-ceremony paperwork just like any other marriage. The only difference is the type of license before your vows.
Hey there- just so you know, the TOTAL fee in Philadelphia County for a self-uniting license is $90. The website reads as if it’s an extra $90 on top of the $80 fee, but in reality it’s just an extra $10. Just went and got ours today after handing over a cool $90!
THANK YOU! This is great news! It really does make it look like it’s $90 extra. I’m going to update the post. Congrats on your upcoming marriage!!! I’m glad this option worked out for you guys. Thank you so much for your contribution, and I hope to see you around these parts again soon!
Hi! My fiance and I just got our self-uniting license in Montgomery County, PA. It was only $50 (same as a regular license, no extra fee!) and it can be used in any PA county! We’re so excited for our tiny little ceremony 🙂
Oh, it sounds like your wedding is going to be beautiful! I love the intimate ones. Thank you for the update! I love that everyone is sharing the good places to get them. Heck, if you lived close to one of the cheaper counties it might be worth shopping around since it doesn’t matter which one they’re issued in. Wishing you and your fiance a very happy life together!
I’m so glad I found this blog post! I had recently gone to Thumbtack to find an officiant and the cheapest they have been coming in is $250 and that’s for the bare bones stuff. I’ve never been so happy to live in PA! I’ll handle not being able to buy alcohol in my grocery store for a little while longer now 🙂
I’m so glad you found yourself here, too, Kalene! It’s definitely a money saver, and I think there’s a trend towards this type of mindset in couples today. Yay for Pennsylvania, tax free food and clothes, self uniting marriages, and the hassle of obtaining alcohol! Wishing you a beautiful marriage! Let me know if you have any other money saving questions for the big day!
Wisconsin also allows it; while the law says you have to be of a religious denomination that accepts such marriages, they aren’t allowed to ask what your religious affiliation is (and you can say that you hold such beliefs honestly — if you’re planning to do it you obviously believe in it!)
Amazing! Sounds a lot like PA! I’ll be adding it to the list tonight. Thanks a ton, gizmo!
My fiance and I wanted to get a self uniting marriage, we live in Jersey and I’m from Philadelphia so we wanted to have it done in Philly. I couldn’t find anything on the city’s website, but do you by any chance know if we can do it in Philly having current residency from Jersey?
Also, do you know how it works? Like can we just sign the papers any day of the week (like having our marriage on a saturday) and send them back or does someone actually have to see besides your witnesses?
Hi, Stephanie! Thanks for such great questions! Residency shouldn’t matter as far as I’m aware. You’re getting married in PA, so that’s where your marriage license has to originate. J commented above about their experience in Philadelphia county; $90 total, only $10 more than a regular license. If their policies are anything like Allegheny county, you need two witnesses to sign along with yourselves, and the paperwork must be back in their office within 10 days of the marriage.
I hope that helps! I’d recommend calling the specific county office to make sure of all the details. If you’re getting married in a suburb of Philly that does not offer the license, just get it in Philly. The license does not have to come from the county you’re getting married in; just has to be from Pennsylvania. If the county does not offer it, you could also fight the policy, but if you’re looking for the easier route just go into Philadelphia county for the license.
Thank you for this post, it is very helpful. But I have a silly question – for the self uniting license, do you have to bring your witnesses with you to the courthouse? Thanks.
There are no silly questions! But nope, they don’t have to come to the courthouse with you. They just have to be there to witness your marriage, and then sign on the designated line.
If someone is seeking a self-uniting license, does that mean you don’t have to write down an “officiant” on the license? I’m a bit confused if the self-uniting ceremony precludes the need for an officiant, as I would prefer to get married without a judge or other officiant. Thanks in advance for any help you can provide.
That’s exactly what it means! The paperwork only requires the signature of you, your new spouse, and two witnesses. No officiant necessary. It’s different paperwork from the norm, though, so when you go in make sure to ask for a self uniting license.
Hello! I have a question. I live in PA (my whole life). If I apply for the self-uniting license, do I need to have the CEREMONY in PA? Or do you just have to have the correct signatures and send it back? Thanks!
Hi, Megan! It doesn’t really matter where you live. What matters is that the ceremony itself takes place in PA as they are the state issuing the license. There is a spot on the license where they will ask the city and county where the ceremony was held. Sounds like that’s not the best news for you, unfortunately. :/ You can get it in one county and use it anywhere in the state, though. It doesn’t have to be the same county.
Hi! Thanks for this post, it was really helpful to us! Do you know what happens after you return the signed form to city hall – that is, do you have to pick it up again after it’s been processed (or whatever), or will they mail it to you? We’re moving out of the state a week after our planned ceremony, and I’m wondering whether we need to do the actual signing with witnesses ahead of time and just fake it at the ceremony.
Congrats, Jennifer! No need to stress or fudge the dates…you need to take the signed paperwork in within a certain time frame after your wedding, but they will mail the marriage certificate to you!
Awesome! Thanks for the quick response! And now we’re off to city hall 🙂
No prob! Be sure to check how many days it is to get it back to them. I feel like it’s something like 10, but I could be totally wrong and it may vary county to county. 🙂 An exciting day! Best of luck!
My husband and I took the self uniting license route. Everything worked out great until I went to the PA DMV to change my last name on my driver’s license. They would not accept this type of marriage license (I had my new SS card and the original license). I have appealed the decision with PennDot, but have not heard back yet. Has anyone else experienced this?
I don’t know that they’d accept any marriage license in that situation. Did you mail your license paperwork in after your wedding or take it to the courthouse? After you do that, they give you a marriage certificate, just like they would with a “normal” marriage license. Most state and federal offices are going to require that you have a certified copy of that marriage certificate with a raised seal. It’s a pain, but what is generally required of anybody, whether they’ve gotten a self-uniting license or not. They’re generally between $7-$10/copy. I hope that helps!
We mailed everything in, but did not request a copy. I will go to the marriage records office on Monday to see if I can get a certified copy. Penndot’s website said original copies, so I assumed that it meant the half that we kept. You may have just saved me more frustration! Thank you!
I hope it all worked out, Tara! And you’re welcome…I’ve been there before so I know how annoying all that name switching stuff can be. 🙂
We just applied for our self-uniting license today in Allegheny county and they didn’t question anything, simply explained how it works and the fee is no different than an officiant license, $80. This is a great option and really feels more intimate than having someone we don’t know tell us things to say to each other. I can’t wait!
That’s awesome, Jen! A million congrats! I hope your day is beautiful, and glad it could be officiated the way you wanted it to be rather than officiated by a stranger.
My fiancé and I just got our marriage license Monday in Colorado and plan on self solemnizing on Christmas Eve. We have 7 children combined including my sons girlfriend and it will be just us and our kids. I’m still ironing out the details but we plan on choosing a secluded beautiful spot in Denver and saying our vows to each other in front of our kids. I plan on wearing a wedding dress (simple), carrying a bouquet, and we will have wedding cake afterwards. I’m so excited because this has allowed us to chose what’s most important to us and virtually take all the stress out of getting married.
Oh, wow! That sounds so beautiful! I’m so glad this was an option for you guys, and wish you many, many years of happiness.
Wow, you’ve gotten quite a response to this topic! We bartered for our officiant’s services since we knew him from our church. My husband fixed something at his house (installed a new shower head) in exchange for premarital counseling and officiating at the wedding. He’s been joking lately that our marriage comes with a lifetime warranty, so does the shower head, since it needs a new part? Having him officiate for us was worth it because he’s still part of our life (obviously) and has helped us with our marriage since the wedding, but I could see if you weren’t looking for that in the minister, self-officiating would make more sense. I’ve also known people to skip the ceremonial part, or to have a friend get licensed and offer a very brief ceremony.
For the religious having a clergy member do it makes sense! Too cool that you guys bartered services.
I’d heard about this but didn’t follow through. I wish I had! Oh well. 🙁
No regrets! It’s an option out there, but NOT doing it doesn’t make your day any less beautiful!
I have never heard of this before. I’m not sure this happens in Canada. Really interesting idea. Those Quakers have got a few things right over the years!
From my cursory knowledge of them, they’ve gotten QUITE a few things right over the years! That knowledge is cursory, though, and largely learned by living an increasingly large portion of my life in the Quaker State.
This is a brilliant concept – no officiant! It definitely would make for a different wedding ceremony. But it could be pretty awesome.
And whenever I think of using a non-traditional officiant I always think of Joey from Friends – getting his clergy certification online. Another great option.
Yes! Massachusetts makes it pretty easy for people to do that, even for just a day. And their licensing is way cheaper than most of the ones I’ve seen online. Now I’ll think of Joey from friends, and Uncle Joey on Full(er) House.
Does anyone know if Lucerne County PA, recognizes an online ordination.
My friends are getting married and they want me to offiate their wedding.
I received an online ordination and hope this will be legal.
I don’t know specifically about Lucerne County, but overall PA tends to be a mixed bag of experiences. There are cases of the marriage being both upheld and annulled, usually in line with what the couple themselves is seeking. I’d call up the county office (Orphans & Wills Department, I believe) and check with them for their opinion. Best of luck….truly hope it all works out!
It looks like this topic is still pretty active! We’re getting married in philly this Sept and want to have my friend do the ceremony.
What’s the downside of having someone get ordained ??
Self uniting Marriage Sounds like the way to go so we don’t have to go through the hassle of him getting ordained. Do you think there’s any worry that other states won’t recognize this as a “real” marriage. And if so- what’s the worst that could happen right??
First of all, congrats! Oddly enough, self-uniting vows may be more acceptable in PA than internet ordinations. That’s because the officiant has to be of an established religion that meets regularly. Some judges in PA have ruled that those ordained online count, while others have nullified the marriage. If it helps at all, to the best of my knowledge they’ve always ruled in line with what the couple wanted. (So the couple that wanted to stay together, the legitimacy was upheld, and the couple that wanted to pretend the marriage never happened, they nullified it.) If your friend is getting ordained through a physical church, there’s not really an issue to run into.
Also, other states won’t even know that you got married through a self-uniting marriage. Once you’ve sent in the paperwork to the county, your marriage certificate looks the same as everyone else’s! It’s just the paperwork leading up to the ceremony that’s a little different.
California Family Code Section 307 allows “non-clergy marriage” by “members of a particular religious society or denomination not having clergy for the purpose of solemnizing marriage or entering the marriage relation,” provided that specified forms, including the signatures of two witnesses, are properly completed and filed. The limitation of this type of wedding to members of certain religious groups seems patently unconstitutional, and this law appears vulnerable to the same sort of legal challenge as was successfully made by the ACLU to the Pennsylvania law. Or a city or county clerk could disregard this restriction as unconstitutional, and start issuing license for, and recording, secular marriages without an officiant. (This would be similar to what happened when the San Francisco city and county clerk started issuing licenses for same-sex marriage, disregarding as unconstitutional the sate law which at the time restricted marriage.) But so far as I can tell, this restriction has not yet been challenged.
Definitely not constitutional to ask someone their religion and then deny them a government service based on that answer! I hope someone fights it. Tons of organizations that will do it pro bono. Even after the Allegheny county case, we had a reader fight it in another county further to the east. She won.
It can be done!
Pro bono legal representation isn’t as easy to find as you might think — there are many worthy causes, and only so many staff lawyers or volunteers for civil liberties causes. Organizations and law firms have to make hard choices about which cases are both winnable and important enough to prioritize.
We’ve asked the Northern California ACLU, but haven’t yet heard their decision, which typically takes weeks. They have the resources to take on only a small fraction of the the worthy, winnable cases that are brought to them.
If you have other leads on potential pro bono northern California counsel, please contact me.
I will! If memory serves me, the reader who did it used a group that is also national. I’ll ask some questions and get that info to you!
Blah, I was wrong. She did end up using the ACLU. It took her about a month to hear back, though, before they took her case on. Did you mention the federal precedent set by the PA case? Maybe that would help them make the decision to hop on (as it was a federal judge–US District Court–who made the final decision.)
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