How to Plan a Civil Ceremony

A non-religious ceremony gives couples the freedom to get married the way they want to

By Lynette DiPalma

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Though most commonly thought of as a quick courthouse wedding, a civil ceremony is simply one that is performed outside a house of worship by a nondenominational, secular officiant legally authorized to conduct the ceremony such as a justice of the peace. Civil ceremonies free a couple from any religious traditions that they may feel uncomfortabcourtle performing and allow them to enjoy a simple ceremony.

  • What You Need to Know
  • Civil ceremonies afford considerably more freedom in terms of structure, theme and location.
  • A wedding planner is just as useful for a civil ceremony as for a religious one.
  • Not all family members and friends will be enthused about a civil ceremony, preferring a religious one instead.

Step 1:

Find out the legal guidelines for civil officiants in your state, county or parish. In most states a judge, the justice of the peace and any nondenominational clergy may legally marry a couple, but in some states the mayor and even a notary can do the job. You can also reach out to freelance celebrants or officiants who will perform your ceremony either for free or for a small fee. Ask friends and family for referrals. Select an officiant who will respect your wishes as a couple. This is especially important if you plan on having a nontraditional ceremony that may have elements that some officiants may be unwilling or unable to perform for various reasons.

Step 2:

As with any wedding you must set a date for the joyous event. This is especially important if you plan on having any services provided such as a venue, caterers or even a florist. By all means choose a date that has meaning, but keep in mind that vendors and venues may not be available. Civil ceremonies are as informal as you want them to be, so if you're not having a wedding at a special location that requires you to book the place, choose a date based on convenience and preference.

Step 3:

Once you have a date and location set up you can include the information in your invitation. Civil ceremonies don't have to be large, so you may not have to mail out invitations -- e-mail is an alternative for those on a budget. Either way an invitation is helpful for guests who may need a reminder. Typically invitations are sent out about six to eight weeks ahead of the ceremony.

Step 4:

Determine what services you will need based on the size and formality of the event you want. Typical weddings often include music, flowers, chair rentals, catering and, of course, the cake. All of these may be provided by outside vendors or by a friend or family member.

Step 5:

Decide on how you want to get married. A civil ceremony gives you the freedom to decide how you want your marriage to take place. Not only can you choose a theme, location and officiant independent of religion, but also a ceremony. You can borrow wedding rituals and traditions from cultures around the world to create a distinctive blend of words and symbols. Or you can come up with something entirely new. Write your own vows, for example, or blend cultural traditions from both your heritages. If you want something unique, use the ceremony to tell your own story: choose your favorite poets, music or memories to come up with something personal.

Step 6:

Obtain a marriage license. Each state and county has different requirements, and many require a waiting period between getting the license and holding the ceremony. Check with the wedding license department of the county or parish in which you plan to hold the ceremony to find out all the details.

Step 7:

Work closely with your officiant to go over the ceremony. Most freelance officiants are experienced with helping a couple go over all the details to make sure nothing is forgotten and the ceremony will run smoothly. They can also offer you ideas and themes based on their past experience.

Step 8:

As with a traditional wedding it's a good idea to practice your ceremony or proceedings -- if you're having one -- prior to the wedding day. Even the most simple civil ceremonies will benefit from a complete run-through of the ceremony before the big day.

Step 9:

Practice prior to the wedding day. Even the most simple civil ceremonies will benefit from a complete run-through of the ceremony before the big day.

  • Tips & Warnings
  • You can have a friend perform your wedding ceremony by becoming ordained through an online nondenominational ordination service. These ordinations are recognized in most states, but be sure to file the necessary paperwork for it to be legal.
  • Some of your more religious and old-fashioned relatives may have a hard time accepting a civil ceremony, so consider including some kind of gesture for them in the ceremony, such as a blessing or prayer.
  • Even though they're less formal, civil ceremonies and wedding celebrations still require planning and expense.

About the Author

Lynette DiPalma is a freelance writer in the weddings field who co-owns a small wedding services business and has officiated at weddings.

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