Monday, November 30, 2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

When a Wedding Isn"t a Legal Marriage

Wedding ministers receive all kinds of strange requests. One night I received a call from a gentleman clearly in distress.
"Reverend Peluso? I'm wondering if you can help me with a sensitive problem."
"Why don"t you tell me about it," I said.
"On the basis of my attorney's projections last year, I scheduled a wedding, expecting my divorce decree to have been finalized last month."
"Sounds like that didn"t happen."
" I don"t know what I'm going to do. We've put thousands down on the reception hall and caterer, the wedding is supposed to be in two weeks, and...."
"Nonrefundable deposits. Got it."
"Our parents are old, I don"t want to break their hearts...but when I explained the situation to the minister we engaged several months ago, he said he wouldn"t do the wedding."
"I'm sorry to hear that. How is your fiance reacting to all this?"
"Of course, she's disappointed, but she's been just very understanding."
What my "gentleman-in -distress" needed was a "wedding" ceremony that would let everyone celebrate their commitment, and when his divorce decree came through, he and his fiance would legally tie the knot at city hall.
"I will have to speak to your fiance alone. Would you please have her call me?"
There were a couple of problems to overcome in order for me to agree to do this ceremony, the first was to make sure the fiance wasn"t being deceived, pressured or coerced into accepting a phony marriage. I needed to be sure my gentleman-in-distress wasn"t a manipulator.
That proved not to be the case. His "bride" fully understood that the ceremony I would perform was not a legal marriage and that I could not pronounce them husband and wife without a license.
In several traditions, the lines between the sacred and the legal are more preserved and transparent than in our modern Western marriage commemorations. In these traditions, two separate steps may be involved: one: the signing of a contract; the other, the sacred ceremony. In America, the state issues the license, but the ceremony is performed separately. The clergyperson, having registered with the city or state, then verifies that the marriage has been performed by submitting the documents. In this case, I would not be stating that "by the power vested in my by the State of New York, I pronounce you..." nor would there be any documents.
When I was sure that this bride and groom understood the full legal implications, I then did some counseling with them both on how to protect themselves until they could legalize their union. I told them that before I'd do the wedding I'd want them to agree to go immediately and name each other as beneficiary in all their bank accounts and financial documents, and to name each other as coowners, or to "will" to each other all other properties. I was delighted to learn that they had already done this. What they hadn"t yet done was given each other durable power of attorney and health care proxy. These latter two items are essential in order for either to act on the other's behalf in an emergency.
The couple's agreement to do these things for each other, convinced me that their relationship and intentions were for real. Under those conditions, I agreed to do a spiritual ceremony. Instead of pronouncing them married, I pronounced them "loving and committed life-partners." And their aged parents, nor anyone else, seemed to notice anything amiss as I transitioned my couple directly into the kiss.
There are any number of reasons why a couple may wish to have the sacred part of a "wedding" performed without legalizing the union. Seniors may be afraid to lose their social security. Other people do not recognize the right of civil authority over what they feel is a private matter. And, of course, we have gay and lesbian couples, who, as of this writing, are unable to legally marry in this and many other states.
We humans are moved to recognize life milestones in the form of ritual. When we meet someone with whom we wish to share our lives, we want to celebrate our love with each other, with friends, family and community.
It is a privilege to be here for couples and assist in whatever way I can, to the extent the law allows.