John Roska: What makes a marriage legal

Q: Who can officiate at a wedding? Do they have to be an ordained minister, or have some religious affiliation? What happens if the person performing the marriage wasn't qualified to officiate?

A: Weddings in Illinois can be performed by judges, the Cook County Circuit Clerk, or "in accordance with the prescriptions of any religious denomination."

The law also says they can be performed by "a public official whose powers include solemnization of marriages." But it's not clear that any public official's powers โ€” besides Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown's โ€” extend that far. (In Indiana, mayors and city clerks can marry you.)

A legal Illinois marriage requires three ingredients. It must be "licensed, solemnized and registered." Who solemnized the marriage is probably the least important ingredient.

The county clerk's office issues licenses, and registers marriages once they're performed. The state license and registration is required because marriage is treated as "a civil contract between three parties โ€” the husband, the wife, and the state itself."

State or federal judges, active or retired, can perform weddings, along with judges from the Illinois Court of Claims. Retired judges who do weddings can't get paid.

Otherwise, the law says a marriage can be solemnized "in accordance with the prescriptions of any religious denomination, Indian Nation or Tribe or Native Group."

If those prescriptions require an "officiant," they must be in good standing with the denomination, Tribe, or Group.

That leaves it up to the church, synagogue, mosque, tribe, etc., to determine who's able to perform marriages. Individual denominations may license or ordain people to perform marriages, but Illinois does not.

If it turns out that someone wasn't legally authorized to do marriages, the marriage is probably valid. The law says that a marriage is "not invalidated by the fact the person solemnizing the marriage was not legally qualified to solemnize it, if either party to the marriage believed him to be so qualified."

All that really matters, then, is whether the spouses think someone's qualified to do their wedding. If a denomination later says the officiant wasn't qualified to do weddings, but you thought they were, your marriage is legal.

And if a marriage was licensed and registered, those ingredients are probably enough to make it valid.

Problems over the validity of marriages are rare. When they occur, they're raised by an unhappy spouse who wants to invalidate the marriage (rather than divorce), or by heirs wanting to invalidate someone else's inheritance by invalidating their marriage.

At least while you're happily married, you shouldn't have to worry about whether your marriage was validly solemnized.

Finally, it's worth noting that challenges to marriages performed by people ordained by the Universal Life Church have had some success in other states. The ULC's online ordination is free, and just requires your name, address, and e-mail. The trend in more recent attempts to invalidate ULC weddings, though, seems to favor the marriage.

John Roska is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. You can send your questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820. Questions may be edited for space.

 

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