Are you really married?

Jim Siemens

Certified Family Law Specialist


Most married couples never question the legal validity of their marriage, and most have no reason to.  Those who chose non-traditional forms of solemnizing their marriage, though, might want to take a closer look.

For a marriage to be valid under current North Carolina law, the parties must express their intent to marry either (1) in the presence of an ordained minister of any religious denomination, a minister authorized by a church, or a magistrate, and with the consequent declaration by the minister or magistrate that the persons are husband and wife; or (2) in accordance with any mode of solemnization recognized by any religious denomination, or federally or State recognized Indian Nation or Tribe.  N. C. Gen. Stat. §51-1.1.

The current marriage statute is substantially more liberal than in years past because it accepts the validity of Native American ceremonies and any religious denomination.  Nonetheless, it retains its emphasis on the presence of a minister or magistrate.  Couples who were married by people whose credentials as a minister were questionable have, in turn, had the validity of their marriage questioned.

For example, in Pickard v. Pickard, 176 N.C. App. 193 (2006), the parties were married by an officiant who had paid $10 to become a minister of the Universal Life Church, and who had performed only one marriage ceremony – the one being questioned.  The trial court found that the officiant was not a minister and, therefore, the marriage was not valid.

Similarly, the statutory expansion to recognize Native American ceremonies did not occur until 2001, and couples who were married by such ceremonies prior to that date might find the validity of the marriage questioned for purposes of determining alimony and other marital obligations.

Most marriages occur in recognized religious institutions or ceremonies and are unquestionably valid.  Those who choose alternative means of solemnizing their marriage should ensure that their ceremony is officiated by a person recognized by North Carolina law to declare them married.