Marriage by an Internet-Ordained Minister – Is It Valid?

William Hoffmeyer Reflects on Being an Internet Ordained Minister

Internet ordained minister

Are internet ordained ministers legally valid in Pennsylvania?

Over a number of years, I acted as the Master of Ceremonies at approximately 12 weddings, both in Pennsylvania and, on one occasion, in Florida for my son, Steve.

Since Pennsylvania was a Quaker state, the law in those days permitted a couple to marry themselves.  I certainly had no authority to declare them a husband and wife; however, I, at their request, would read various poems or other writings that they wanted to be read during the wedding ceremony, and then they would exchange their vows themselves, indicating that they were taking each other as husband and wife.

In no instance were any of the parties, the future bride and groom or me, members of the Quaker church.

Pennsylvania Law on Solemnization of Marriages

The most recent amendment to the Marriage Act (23 Pa.C.S.A. §1101, etc.) known as “Persons Qualified to Solemnize Marriages”, 23 Pa.CS (Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes), Section 1503, states specifically that there are specific persons authorized to solemnize marriages between persons who produce a marriage license issued under this particular section.

Thereafter is a list of publicly-elected officials: a district magistrate, a judge of the Courts of Common Pleas, a judge or full-time magistrate of the District Courts of the United States for the Eastern, Middle, or Western District of Pennsylvania, a bankruptcy judge of the United States Bankruptcy Courts for the Eastern, Middle, or Western District of Pennsylvania who is a resident of the Commonwealth, a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit who is a resident of this Commonwealth, a mayor of any city or borough, a former mayor of any city or borough of the Commonwealth who hasn’t been defeated for reelection and has not been involved in any conviction of a misdemeanor in Pennsylvania, a minister, priest or rabbi of any regularly-established church or congregation.

This particular section then defines the term “religious organizations” as “Every religious society, religious institution, or religious organization in this Commonwealth may join persons together in marriage when at least one of the persons (emphasis added) is a member of the society, institution, or organization, according to the rules and customs of the society, institution, or organization.”

This particular section concludes by requiring that anybody who is married legally in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania must do so with a marriage license and that no person or religious organization qualified to perform marriages shall officiate a marriage ceremony without the parties (bride and groom) having obtained a marriage license.

Recent Case Law

All that being said, there is a recent history of three Courts of Common Pleas’ decisions on this particular subject which, hopefully, as far as the most recent case is concerned, shed some light on the legality of a marriage officiated by a minister who has been ordained through the internet by a regularly-established religious organization.

The first case came out of the Orphans Court of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in which the principal issue was whether a decedent’s (the now deceased groom) “close personal friend” was qualified to officiate.  The opinion stated that the friend had applied for an “on-line” credentials at the website with the easiest process.  He did not recall the name of the website or the church and could not locate the document he had received but that he was satisfied that he could perform the ceremony and agreed that he would not have officiated if he thought he was not ordained.

This particular church involved was the “First Nation Church & Ministry” that indicated that the individual had been ordained on October 29, 2012, and had been assigned a minister’s license number.

The history of the church was submitted to the court, tracing the church’s roots to the Cherokee Baptist Circuit Church founded in 1938.

The Court in its decision cited two previous cases in Pennsylvania, both involving the Universal Life Church, each of which reached opposing conclusions.

The one opinion granted the relief based on the fact that the officiant received credentials within five to ten minutes of applying to a “church” of which he was not a member, of which he had never attended any meetings, in which he had no place of worship or congregation that gathered together for the same purpose.  This court opinion found the marriage to be void.

However, in another Court of Common Pleas decision (Bucks County) where the bride’s uncle had obtained his credentials more than three years prior to the ceremony and testified that he took his position as the minister of the Universal Life Church seriously and that he counseled the couple to ensure that they were ready for marriage.  This court found the marriage to be valid and that the officiant’s ordination to be valid.

In the most recent opinion the judge noted that “The officiant and the couple all believe the officiant ‘had the authority to perform the wedding’, that ‘friends and family in attendance…no doubt assumed the same,’ and the couple acted ‘knowingly and voluntarily…in pursuit of a valid certificate of marriage’”.

The judge also stated “The problems that caused common-law marriages to be disfavored in the courts and ultimately outlawed by the legislature…the lack of ceremony that made the existence of the marriage difficult to prove and the fact that an oral contract to wed was viewed as a fruitful source of perjury and fraud…have no relevance here.  Under these circumstances, we believe it would be manifestly unfair to declare that there was no marriage.”

The Court’s opinion deals with the requirement of the “Marriage Act” in this manner:  “Where there is evidence that a person has been authorized as a ‘minister’ of a ‘regularly-established religious organization’, this Court will not nor should it inquire into the religious precepts, teaching, or counseling related to the marriage ceremony or otherwise provided by any church, religious organization, or congregation.  We adopted the broad reading of the Act enunciated by the Court in the O’Neill case and credit First Nation Church and Ministry’s long history and non-profit status.”

Ordained as a Minister

I, personally, did apply for and was ordained as a minister in the Universal Life Church in October of this year and received my Honorary Doctor of Divinity degree on December 14, 2017.

I applied for ordination by the Universal Life Church at the request of very good, long-time friends of mine, who wanted to be married on the day after Christmas, 2017, in St. Michaels, Maryland, where the bride’s mother and father reside.  I have known the bride since 1992 and was involved with the groom, a fellow attorney, in a commercial real estate transaction, in the early 1970s.  They both contacted me and requested that I become ordained because they were not comfortable and not satisfied with having an elected official conducting their ceremony, and they are not and have not been attendees at any particular religious organization for many, many years.

I personally find the philosophies of the Universal Life Church to be very similar to my own philosophies and am quite comfortable in taking the position that I am now a member of that church and have now conducted a beautiful ceremony at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels, Talbot County, Maryland, which county fully accepts, and for some period of time has accepted, marriages performed by ordained ministers of the Universal Life Church.

York Pennsylvania and Internet-Ordained Ministers

With regard to York County, Pennsylvania, or for that matter any other county in Pennsylvania, I truly think that any couple who desires to be married by an internet-ordained minister should consult legal counsel as to the potential opinion in an appellate case in Pennsylvania that such marriages may be void.  It would be my opinion that, to be absolutely certain that your marriage would be valid, that you have the marriage performed in a county in Maryland or other state that officially recognizes a marriage by a licensed minister of the Universal Life Church or a similar such church which provides ordinations through the internet.

For additional questions about Internet-ordained ministers and Pennsylvania family law, contact William Hoffmeyer at our York PA law office today.

Common Problems in Private Real Estate Transactions

How Your Lawyer Can Help in Real Estate Transactions

Why you need a lawyer during a private real estate transaction

Many issues can arise during a private real estate transaction. A lawyer can protect you.

We have previously written about issues that can arise in a for sale by owner real estate transaction. Now we want to tell you about some of the common issues that can arise during any private real estate transaction.

Realtors Use Standard Forms – They May Not Work for You

Since realtors are not attorneys, they often use standard contracts in private real estate transactions. This is likely the case for both the brokerage agreement and the home sale contract. Due to this, it is wise to have an attorney review any contracts prior to signing them.

Realtor Brokerage Form

Realtor brokerage form contracts can contain a variety of terms that may not be in your best interests.

You Have to Pay the Commission Even if the House Doesn’t Sell

If you are the seller, the brokerage agreement may state that you have to pay a brokerage fee regardless of whether the home is sold. For example, the agreement may state that if you receive a full price offer, you have to accept it. If you do not accept a full price offer, the contract may state, you will be responsible for paying the full brokerage fee. Due to such a clause, you could be forced to sell your home when a better offer may come along in the near future, or even if you change your mind and don’t want to sell.

The Agent Can Represent Both Buyer and Seller

The brokerage agreement may allow your real estate agent to represent both sides of the sale. Brokers are supposed to be loyal to either the seller or the buyer. But many brokerage agreements allow the broker to represent both sides. This allows the agent to receive both the buyer’s and seller’s percentage of the deal. This is a clear conflict of interest on the part of the agent. How is an agent supposed to negotiate the best deal for the seller if they are trying to also negotiate the best deal for the buyer? Your lawyer can review the agreement for any clauses which allow this kind of disloyalty.

Alterations to the House – Vague Contracts

Many form contracts do not address the time between when the buyer and seller sign the contract of sale and when the buyer takes possession. For example, if there is landscaping and the seller fails to care for it properly before the buyer takes possession, who is responsible for handling any dead or damaged plants?

Also, during this time the seller may cause damage to the house. This is especially common during the moving process. Things can be banged into walls causing damage to paint or walls. Sometimes houses are left vacant and third parties may cause damage. Who will be responsible under those circumstances?

There also may be confusion about what items are to be left in the home. This could include the refrigerator, draperies, or other items of importance that can cost substantial amounts. Contracts may be vague as to other details as well, costing either the buyer or seller money, time, or unnecessary stress during a very stressful time. A lawyer can make certain that the contract of sale is clear and help you avoid problems that arise due to lack of clarity.

Title Search

In Pennsylvania, a title search is a necessary part of a private real estate transaction if the buyer has a mortgage. Even if the buyer does not have a mortgage, a title search is critical. Making certain the title search is properly performed and understanding any problems is crucial. While a real estate agent may understand some aspects of a title search, they are unable to provide legal advice about the result and how any issues may impact the buyer. A lawyer can explain the results and advise the buyer on whether continuing with the sale is a good idea.

Mortgage Contract

Mortgage contracts are confusing. One of the reasons many people end up in foreclosure is because they do not understand how the loan will work over time. For example, will the rate change and how will that impact you? What happens if the mortgage is sold to a different bank? It is important to make sure that you understand all of the terms of the mortgage agreement.

The Closing

During the closing, both the buyer and seller will be provided with many documents to sign. Even if you do not feel pressured to sign every document quickly, you may not be certain what all of the small print means. In addition, you may be uncertain if some terms were altered from the point at which you agreed to the deal. A lawyer will take the time to review all documents and make sure that everything is correct and your rights are protected.

Your Lawyer Protects You

The key thing to remember is that a lawyer has only one job during a private real estate transaction, and that is to protect you, the client. While most real estate agents are ethical, they want to see the sale go through, are not lawyers, and are unable to advise you on the law. As a result, it is wise to have a lawyer with you during the process of buying or selling a house, so you can be certain that your rights are protected.

Contact Our Real Estate Lawyers for Assistance

If you are thinking about buying or selling, please call the law offices of Hoffmeyer and Semmelman today. Our experienced real estate lawyers in York are here to help. We also have law offices in Shrewsbury and Mt. Wolf.


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