The process of getting married in Pennsylvania requires three basic requirements and one optional requirement: 1) a license must be obtained from the county courthouse, 2) the marriage must be solemnized through a ceremony that is 3) overseen by an officiant, and (optional) followed by occasionally humorous and usually embarrassing speeches from friends and family.
Though seemingly routine, the role of the officiant is actually critical to this process because they are authorized under Pennsylvania law to solemnize the marriage and have the responsibility of executing and returning the certificate to the County’s Register of Wills for recording.
23 Pa.C.S.A. § 1503 offers six categories of persons who Pennsylvania has qualified to solemnize marriages: current and former or retired (Pennsylvania or Pennsylvania District) justices, judges, or district justices (provided the retired magistrates are serving as senior judges or district justices); mayors of any city or borough, a minister, priest, or rabbi of any regularly established church or congregation.
There has been, however, some disagreement in Pennsylvania as to whether certain members of the “clergy” can perform legal marriages. York County has invalidated marriages solemnized by ministers of the Universal Life Church. The case, Heyer v. Hollerbush, dealt with Ms. Heyer’s request that their marriage be invalidated after approximately a year of marriage on the basis that the officiant, a minister with the Universal Life Church, did not qualify as a “a minister, priest, or rabbi of any regularly established church or congregation” under Section 1503(a)(6). York County agreed with Ms. Heyer and declared the marriage invalid from its inception. York County effectively declared that their marriage never happened.
The Universal Life Church is most readily known as an online church where people can obtain their ordination as Ministers through an online application form. York County’s narrow reading of Section 1503 cited the absence of a “regularly established church or congregation” as the reason why they could not accept Universal Life ministers as officiants of weddings.
The invalidation of marriages based on these grounds, particularly in light of the 2005 abolition of common law marriages in Pennsylvania, can have major ramifications to parties’ financial interests and their ownership interests in property. For example, unless jointly titled, the marital residence may suddenly become the sole property of the party on the title. Almost overnight the non-titled party has become a trespasser in what had been their home and could be removed by the titled party relatively easily.
Further complicating this issue is that two hours east of York County, the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas has upheld the validity of marriages performed by Universal Life Ministers. You can read Judge C. Theodore Fritsch, Jr.’s Memorandum Opinion at: http://www.ulccaselaw.com/legalPDF/Bucks-county-valid-ulc-marriage.pdf
The Bucks County case was one of several cases filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2008 seeking declaratory judgments that validate marriages that may otherwise be called into question based on the Heyer decision. As of late 2008, public records indicate that these marriages, filed jointly by the parties and without opposition (as opposed to the Heyer case in which the parties were adverse), were upheld as valid.
Practically speaking, however, this interpretive discord of Section 1305(a)(6) among Pennsylvania’s counties raises some interesting and serious questions: is a Bucks County marriage valid if the parties move and become residents of York County? Would they have to have another ceremony to solemnize their marriage? Rather than go through a divorce proceeding, could a party move to York County, establish residency, and then seek to invalidate their marriage?
At least at the County level (the Superior Court has yet to address the issue), the progression of declaratory judgments validating marriages similar to the Heyer case has helped to build precedence and close such dangerous loopholes. Nevertheless, it is important for people to investigate whether the county in which they will be married recognizes marriage ceremonies and selected officiants so that they may avoid any future analysis akin to Heyer v. Hollerbush.