Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This blog should not be viewed as legal advice. It is simply my experiences, opinions, and information I looked up on the internet.
My friend, Evo Terra, is an ordained minister through the Universal Life Church. If you have five minutes and an internet connection, you can be ordained too. He’s performed a handful of marriages over the years but this weekend he performed a most unusual marriage ceremony. The bride and groom were in North Carolina and he performed the ceremony over the internet via webcam. When he agreed to perform the ceremony, he put the responsibility on the couple to make sure that the marriage is legitimate.
In California, Colorado, Montana, and Texas, you can have a marriage by proxy, where a third person stands in for the bride or groom who is unable to be there. If it’s possible to get married when the bride or groom isn’t physically present in the room, is the marriage valid if the minister isn’t physically present?
According to the law in North Carolina, all you need to have a valid marriage is a marriage license and a consenting heterosexual couple who freely, seriously, and plainly take each other as husband and wife in the presence of an ordained minister of any religious denomination. The law does not provide any specifics regarding where the minister needs to physically be during the ceremony. I would not be surprised if the couple signs their marriage license and sends it to Evo, who then signs in and sends it in to the appropriate recording office in North Carolina, that they would accept it without batting an eye.
This issue boils down to what is does it mean to have a marriage ceremony in the presence of a minister. I could not find a definition for “presence” in the North Carolina marriage laws. Is a being present live via web cam enough or must the minister be physically present in the room?
This issue reminds me of the use of proxy signatures on a will. In Arizona, if a person cannot sign their will themselves, they can direct someone else to sign it for them in their “conscious presence.” The requirement of conscious presence could not be fulfilled over the telephone, and probably not via web cam according to my Decedent Estates professor. North Carolina only requires a proxy signature on a will to be completed in the person’s presence and at their direction. I don’t know if the definition of “conscious presence” in Arizona is the same as “presence” in North Carolina.
Did my friend perform a valid marriage ceremony this weekend? I don’t know. I called Wake County in North Carolina. Someone there said that the marriage laws have not been changed since they were enacted; therefore the marriage isn’t valid unless the minister is physically in the same room with the bride and groom. She basically said that since marriage couldn’t be performed over the internet in the past, they can’t be performed over the internet now. I think that answer is incomplete and that this issue deserves some exploration.
I don’t think this issue is going to have a legal answer unless someone goes to court and claims that their marriage that was officiated via web cam wasn’t a valid marriage. That probably will not happen unless a spouse who was married over the internet dies without a will and someone who would get a larger inheritance from the deceased’s estate claims that the surviving spouse should not inherit from the estate because the marriage was not valid.