The point at which you are officially married

Once the “I do’s" are said

Mailorder clergy are just as legitimate as the Pope.
  • Mailorder clergy are just as legitimate as the Pope.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Dear Mr. Alice: I've always wondered at exactly what moment a couple is considered officially married. When the preacher says, “I now pronounce you man and wife” or when the license is signed or what? And what about all these ads for chapels that say they’ll perform a legal, “confidential” marriage without blood tests and licenses? — Been There, Done That, San Diego

Consider this scene in a local garage. The prospective bride and groom and Art, the guy who fixes their Camaro, are standing under the lift, tinkering with the muffler. “Hey, dude,” says Art, putting down his wrench, “you sure you wanna marry this babe?"

“Yup."

“Cool with you too, momma?”

“Neat-o!”

If they’ve done their homework properly, the dude and the babe are now officially married. There’s a little paperwork to take care of, but even without it, the state considers them hitched, assuming three things: the bride and groom have been living together, neither one is a parolee, and Art is either a clergyman in his spare time or has been deputized by the county clerk to perform the marriage. No blood test necessary (irrelevant, since they’ve been living together). No license application. No ugly bridesmaid dresses. It’s called a confidential or 4213 marriage (after the civil code section) — legal since the Gold Rush days and one of five types of licenses issued in California. According to the office of vital statistics in Sacramento, nearly half the marriages - performed these days are 4213s. And you’re living in the only state that offers a deal like this. A California exclusive.

The state civil code has about 60 pages of thou shalts and thou shan’ts for tying the nuptial knot. Or noose, if you prefer. They’re all based on the idea that California is a ceremonial state; the bride and groom must indicate, in whatever way they like, in the presence of someone legally authorized to perform the ceremony, that they are willing to marry the other person. Once the “I do’s" are said, they’re married. Any ritual or palaver before or after that is just for show.

California does not recognize common law marriage between state residents (though it will recognize as legal a common law marriage that occurred in any of the 12 states in which such unions are legal). And you can’t marry by phone or fax, as hundreds of people found out during the Gulf War, when soldiers, perhaps affected by the heat, decided to get married longdistance. The lovelorn grunts were referred to Michigan, one of only two states that allow people to reach out and marry someone.

As for who’s recognized as an official “clergyman,” the state makes no judgments. Mailorder clergy are just as legitimate as the Pope. The Universal Life Church in Modesto ordains every member as a minister (as long as your check doesn’t bounce, I think), so anybody with a piece of paper from the ULC can legally perform ceremonies. Quakers and other denominations that have no clergy are permitted to have couples state their own vows in front of the congregation. In some financially hard-pressed counties, the clerk deputizes senior citizen volunteers to perform marriages. It saves the county money and gives the seniors one more heart-warming activity to fill their retirement days. But a few California county clerks who are devoutly religious have refused to perform civil ceremonies at all.

Should all the creative possibilities make you so enthusiastic that perhaps you acquire an extra spouse or two along the way, you’ll be legally married to all of them — which is illegal. A criminal offense. (If any of your spouses married you knowing you hadn’t unloaded their predecessors, they are prosecutable too.) So there’s a chance you and all but your first spouse will be in the slam while the courts sort out who’s entitled to what. Oh, and the dude and the babe can’t be parolees or probationers because they aren’t permitted to enter into contracts (without special permission), and marriage in California is a legal contract.

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