Marriage Officers: What do we need to know?

Marriage Officer Symi officiates a beach wedding

The legal process of getting married, and how to choose your officiant

There is a time in your life, when you realize that you started to belong with someone really special. You've fallen in love, and this time, it's different. It's not just that life finally makes sense to you, it's that it doesn't really matter whether life makes sense at all, as long as you're together.  It's safe to say that you're ready to fire up your cell, book an appointment with your respective families, and let them know that you're probably going to keep on bringing this one home with you, forever.

While you're at it, you can tap "Google", and get your willing search engine slave to find you a single website that will foretell your perfect wedding venue, print your invitations, discover a caterer, find a super hero to bake your epic wedding cake, extrapolate someone to make your dresses and your suits and bridesmaid outfits and something purple for your mother in law that doesn't make her look flushed when she's crying, envision the arrangement of your flowers, play Bach's "Air on the G-string" on the cello while you walk in, set up your wedding registry, hire a gazebo, hire a marimba band... and finally, just before you're ready to elope together and leave the family waiting at the altar... you remember the Marriage Officer.  The Wedding Officiant.  The Union Celebrant.

Suddenly, you wonder just how important a Marriage Officer really is...  they just say the words, right?  And a Marriage Officer does the paperwork, right?  Does the Marriage Officer perform a ceremony of sorts?  You start to wonder just how much of the "honour and obey" is really relevant anymore, and you feel that itch to elope again.  You look at your budget and you're wondering if you can't just do this in court, like they do in the movies.  Or with Elvis impersonators.  And fake flowers.  In Vegas.  And you cringe.

How do you start your search for Marriage Officers?  What do you need to know about a Marriage Officer before you start sending out What's app messages and emails to get the cheapest one?

Marriage Officers:  What do we need to know?

Let's start at the very beginning.  Let's look at the legal system, and how Marriage, Civil Unions, and religion get to play together.

Who can act as marriage officers?

Can your dad register quickly at Home Affairs so he can do the ceremony for you?  There's a plan!

Uhm.  Sorry.  Pops is probably not going to get himself registered as a Marriage Officer in time for your wedding day, and he might consider the requirements that go with the designation, just too much agony for a once-off performance!

Marriage officers are people who have been designated to officiate marriages, under one of two laws.  The first is the Marriage Act from 1961, and the second is the Civil Union Act from 1996.

There's also an act specifically dealing with Customary Marriages from 1998, but it's not equal under the law, hence, we're leaving that specific kind of marriage out of the explanation.

So for now- we're going to work with the Marriage Act and the Civil Union Act.  Symi is registered under the Civil Union Act.  Here's the low down on the Civil Union Act, 2006

Different Civil Union Officiants

Okay-  now, coming in from backstage, there are two more things you need to know.  There are Religious Marriage Officers, who are put forward by their religious organization, and then in another group, there are civil servants who are designated to officiate marriages.  For instance, a Justice of the Peace, or a Magistrate, would be a Marriage Officer by default.  At your local branch of the Department of Home Affairs, you'll be able to find one or two Marriage Officers as well.
Usually, the folks at DHA officiate marriages at no charge, but you do wait quite a while for the marriage date.

Do we want a Civil Union or an old-style Marriage?

The Marriage Act from 1961 only applies to the church marriage officers from Jewish, Muslim and Christian organizations.   There's also mention of an "Indian religion" in the law itself.   You've got to love the sixties!  Un-PC to say the least...

If someone is a minister, priest, or rabbi from one of the mainstream faiths, they'd probably be working under the Marriage Act.

Now-  remember something else about your minister, or priest, or rabbi.

Marriage Officers have to abide by the rules of their religious organization where it comes to performing same sex marriages, or non-religious marriages, marriages outside of their place of worship (outside the church building, for instance), or when you marry someone who is not of the same faith as the officiant (and possibly as yourself).  So in your own mind - don't feel that it's a personal attack on you, or that you're being short-changed.

Religious ministers or priests and priestesses from other minority faiths will be registered via the Civil Union Act of 1996.  Someone designated as marriage officer under the Civil Union Act of 1996, can marry any couple where both of the couple are over 18.  At this time, those religious minsters MAY refuse to marry same-sex couples, but that weird loophole in the law is being challenged at the moment.

If you'd really rather like a non-religious, or humanist celebration, or one outside under a waterfall, then you're probably at the right place right now...

Wait... so Civil Unions aren't just for gay and lesbian couples?

Marriage officers designated under the Civil Union Act of 1996, can perform Straight marriages, Same sex marriages, and religious ceremonies that don't fit into the headings of "Jewish, Christian or Muslim", fall under Civil Unions as well.

Legally, a Marriage and a Civil Union is the same thing.  When you get a Civil Union, you can choose whether it should be known as a "Civil Union Marriage", or a "Civil Union Partnership".  In a marriage, you have a spouse, and in a civil union partnership, you'll have a partner.  However - both of these variations are legally the same too.

It really is up to you how you'd like to refer to your commitment to each other, and how you'd like to introduce your significant other:  as your partner, or as your spouse.

Just before your ceremony is celebrated, your Civil Union Marriage Officer will ask you how you'd like your Civil Union to be known - either as a Marriage, or as a Partnership.

Offensive terms, attitudes, and people spoiling our day

This article would not be complete if we didn't talk about the elephant in the room.  We've heard horror stories of lesbian couples going to the Department of Home Affairs, and being humiliated when they ask for a wedding date with the local Marriage Officer. The plot thickens when one of you is from one religious background, and the other isn't going to convert.   Sometimes, couples struggle to find a Marriage Officer that was registered under the Civil Union Act of 1996, simply because they live in a town where only the mainstream faiths are represented.

Communities of people in minority faiths are often spread geographically, and there might not be a Pastafarian official around when you need one, right?

It's important to know that there are wedding celebrants who will recognize, and respect your love, who will happily celebrate your day with you, and officiate your wedding with the honour and reverence that your love deserves.

Don't give up!

Don't settle for someone who doesn't resonate with both of you.

You're going to tread enough thin lines to keep your parents happy, not offend the extended family, and still make your day special within the budget you have available.  At the very least, have a Marriage Officer who is 100% on your side.

What really has to be in the legal wedding ceremony?

Weddings are steeped in tradition.  We do things the way in which we were brought up, and we do things the way our religion prescribes them.  The only legal requirements for your actual ceremony, are the core sentences to which both the groom(s) and / or bride(s) need to answer "Yes", or "I do".  The religion into which you are getting married, may also have requirements, traditions or prescribed rituals.

Here's the legal wording that need to be followed:

Do you, [name], declare that as far as you know there is no lawful impediment to your proposed marriage with [name] here present, and that you call all here present to witness that you take [name] as your lawful [wife/husband/partner]?

When each of them has answered "Yes," and have joined hands, the Marriage Officer announces:

I declare that [name] and [name] here present have been lawfully married.

The rest of your celebration is up to you, and up to the Marriage Officer.  It's important that you spend time with them, and that they are open to bringing in symbolism and actions that are important to you as a couple, and that they respect the way you see your way forward.  Find a Marriage Officer who will be open to your own vows, and a ceremony, and blessing, that is relevant to you as a couple.

What are the Requirements before we get married?

We're both South African citizens

If you're both South African Citizens, over the age of 18, and you both have valid identity documents, you're almost good to go.

Whether you've been married before or not, please contact Home Affairs, and get your marital status checked.  You might be married to someone you've never met...

If either one or both of you have been married before, you'll need the certificate from the High Court, or Death certificate to show that you're single.

Now you need to get your ID photos, proof of residence, and clear copies of your and  your witnesses' ID's - if you bring your original ID's with on the day, your celebrant can certify your ID copies.

One of us is not a South African citizen

If one of you isn't a South African citizen, you'd need a letter from your country of origin stating that you're not legally married there. This is called a "Letter of No Impediment", and depending whether you're in South Africa (you'd go to your Consulate here), or still at home (at your local Department of Home Affairs) when you plan your wedding, you'd need to get this document issued, and it would need to be lavishly decorated with an Apostille Stamp.  This often takes a while, so it's a good idea to start on this immediately if it's relevant to you.

Lastly, you'd need to set up an appointment at the Department of Home Affairs, for your "Interview".

Even if one of you is a ZA citizen, and the other a Permanent Resident, you would STILL need an Interview.

This is a long-winded kind of process, as only selected offices have the Marriage Officer in attendance who is designated to conduct these interviews.  In Cape Town, for instance, only two offices currently conduct the interviews.  With all your documentation, from identity documents to letters of no impediment, you have to go to the Home Affairs office, (only one of you needs to go make the appointment), applying for the interview date.  Once you have the interview date, you again, as a couple, have to attend the interview.

Only after that is done, and you've fulfilled any additional requirements they may have for you, you'll be able to get married.

We're both Foreign Nationals.

You're eloping!  Excellent news!  You get to skip the Immigration Interview!  Whooot!

So - from your own country, whether you and your betrothed hail from the same country, or not - you will need:

  • Letters of no impediment
  • Passports
  • Visas
  • Copy of entry stamp into South Africa.
  • Proof of residence
  • If either / both of you are UK Citizens, you won't be issued with a Letter of No Impediment, for that, we need a letter from your consulate saying they won't issue the letter (!!), and an affidavit by yourself saying you're single.
  • A letter from your marriage officer saying they'll be doing your ceremony, and your date is booked.

What's mine is mine, and what's yours is also mine.

In South Africa, being married means that you become one financial persona by default.

If you don't want to stand in for your partner's debt, or have to co-sign on legal agreements, you have to do a Prenup, or also called an Ante-nuptial agreement.

If you forget, or manage to not process it in time so that it's signed before your wedding date, you will have to get a postnup, or cope with your new "in community of property" status.

A post-nuptial contract means your legal team sets up your agreement, and then they get to go to the High Court to explain why you didn't get around to doing it the right way around, and a judge rules that the terms of your marriage can be changed after the fact.

How do you skip the whole post-nuptial debacle?

Pre-nuptial agreements have a strict time line to them.

1 - They get drafted, and then finalized by your chosen legal professional.

2 - The final document gets signed by both of you, and notarized.

3 - A letter stating the broad terms, and your names, and the date it was signed, is submitted to the Marriage Officer.  (If it's not handed in in time to your Marriage Officer, you're married IN community of property).

4 - NOW your marriage officer can marry you.

5 - Your legal eagle will submit your agreement to the Deeds Office, while a copy of the document and the Letter is submitted with your wedding paperwork to the Department of Home Affairs.  These tasks must be completed by your lawyer and your marriage officer, not by yourself.

Finally - how do we choose the right Marriage Officer for our wedding day?

As a couple, you're formalizing your relationship, your love, that is already strong, and vibrant.  Everything on your wedding day has to honour your love, and reflect your personality as a new family.

Your wedding day isn't really about your parents, and their dreams or expectations, nor about the community and their traditions - it is about the two of you!  Even though it's a very public statement of your commitment to each other, it is powered by the decision to be together forever.  So - return to that decision to be together forever, and make that the central thread that knits your day together.

Now, work from that point outward, and see how everything simply falls into place!

Before you start looking for the Marriage Officer that will officiate for you, first decide how elaborate you want your ceremony to be.

  1. Think about the vows you want to exchange, and about the promises you want to make to each other.
  2. Consider the new traditions you want to bring into your family, and chat about the symbolism that is significant for you.
  3. What are the stories of your love, and your life together?
  4. What is it that you bring to each other as gifts for the journey ahead?
  5. What do you want the Marriage Officer to bring to the event?
  6. Should your Marriage Officer create a religious ceremony that reflects one religion, or that respects more than one belief system?
  7. Should your Marriage Officer bring your children into the ceremony, so they feel they're part of the new family?
  8. Do you want the Marriage Officer to use a standard ceremony script, or should they create a ceremony for the two of you, based on who you are?
  9. Do you want to celebrate your wedding in a different space than the place of worship of your faith?  (On the beach, at home, in a forest.)
  10. Do you want to include your wedding guests in the ceremony, through an interactive activity, or a theme?

Now that you have an idea of what you want for your wedding, start looking for a Marriage Officer who is more than an official - start looking for someone who believes in the magic of your love, and who wants solemnize your relationship by making space for all the bits and pieces you want sewn into your day - and into your life ahead.  Find someone who understands that this is about you, and not about the formalities of the law, nor about the traditions or expectations of your guests.

Find someone passionate about celebrating your love with you.