How to have a Non-Legal Wedding Ceremony

by Jennifer Cram - Brisbane Marriage Celebrant (30/04/2020) Categories: | Wedding Ceremony | Wedding Legals
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Marrying couple
                      reflected in waterWhen someone asks "So when are you getting married?" what they have in mind is usually a single event that includes
                  • a wedding ceremony with all its traditional features of wedding-y clothes, beautiful flowers, music, rings, and heartfelt vows that incorporates the legal process that will create your marriage
                  • a very joyful (and formal) celebration afterwards - the reception

The recent increase in couples deciding to get married overseas,  together with the COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions, presents both a challenge and some alternative possibilities.

Getting married and having a wedding can be a two-step process. Under Australian law it is perfectly legal to have more than one wedding. However, only one of the ceremonies can be a legal one, creating a legal marriage between you.

If you choose to have your wedding in most countries in Europe you will quickly learn that the only way to legally marry is in their equivalent of a registry office ceremony, usually in the town hall. This civil ceremony must be scheduled before a church ceremony or a symbolic ceremony elsewhere. While couples choosing to have their wedding in other places, such as Bali, will learn that you have to be of the same religion to have a legal marriage. Meanwhile in some Asian countries, to get legally married means you just go to a municipal office and sign the paperwork. No ceremony at all!

For practical reasons, fulfilling the legal requirements for marriage here in Australia, and having your wedding at different time in a different place is one that many couples have made, and are still making.

7 Reasons to get legally married before your non-legal wedding

  • You need(ed) to postpone your wedding
    Whether some life circumstances or because the necessary lockdown restrictions Australia implemented in response to COVID-19 means you can't go ahead with your wedding on the date originally planned, there can be many reasons why getting legally married sooner that your rescheduled date is a good choice. While the restrictions are scheduled to be gradually eased, rescheduling yet again may not be practical, for example
  • You want to have a destination wedding
    It is no secret that the ban on international travel is not going to end any time soon. So locking in a date for an overseas wedding is just not possible at the moment. And while internal borders will open earlier, that is a matter for each state. So it is hard to predict when interstate travel will be possible.
  • A visa is involved
    A Prospective Marriage Visa, for example, is granted conditional on the legal marriage taking place before a specified date
  • You would like the moment you commit to one another legally be an intimate experience
    But you would still like to celebrate with friends and family, and share with them your emotional commitment to one another
  • Your families are in two different countries
    It may not be practical for both families to be equally represented at your wedding because one or other, or both, live too far away, so having a ceremony in each country (or state) would be the most inclusive way to ensure that everyone you want to be there, can be. Not having to choose, and explain, why one family will attend the legal ceremony and the other a symbolic one, might be wise.
  • You come from two different cultural or religious backgrounds
    Where you have two families, both expecting that you will marry their way, in their tradition, trying to organise a single ceremony that meets everyone's expectations and legally marries you can be a nightmare. Getting married legally in a ceremony that focuses on the legalities, and following that up with two non-legal ceremonies (one in each tradition), is a good solution. And it is legal to do that, in Australia.
  •  You are nervous that something could go wrong on the big day
    It is actually very common to feel anxious about your big day. There is so much at stake. It is pretty much an all your eggs in one basket event. Going into your big wedding knowing that you've got the legal marriage ticked off minimises your "what-if" fears and allows you to focus on the fun and celebration.

What is a non-legal wedding?

The law in Australia is quite simple. You may have a non-legal ceremony that is pretty much indistinguishable from a legal wedding.
  • If the ceremony is a religious ceremony held in a house of worship, the ceremony can be according to the approved liturgy for marriage ceremonies of that religion. Approved means that the religion has mandated the ceremony that all clergy must use, and this ceremony has been approved by the government for the solemnisation of legal marriages
  • If the ceremony is a civil/secular ceremony, the legally required statement to be made by the authorised celebrant, together with the mandated vows that create the contract of marriage between you, must be omitted.

Who can officiate a non-legal ceremony?

In a word. Anyone. As long as the person officiating the ceremony doesn't hold themselves out to be authorised to solemnise a legal marriage, or pretend that the ceremony they are officiating creates a legal marriage, you can choose anyone. You can even lead the ceremony yourselves.

There are, however, very good reasons to choose someone who is experienced and professional to create and lead your ceremony. I deal with those in detail in my blog Friend or Professional Celebrant? Everything you need to consider when deciding who will conduct your wedding ceremony, and give you some guidance about how to have the best of both worlds.

And then these is the third option, a service I've been very successfully providing for years. I will work with you to craft a very personal ceremony, and then hand over the script for your friend to use when leading your ceremony. I'll even coach your friend and make sure they have the finalised script in good time to practice, practice, practice.

What you need to do to organise a non-legal wedding

Basically, to organise a non-legal wedding you need to do everything you would do to organise a legal wedding with the following additions and exceptions
  • You must tell the member of clergy or celebrant that you are already legally married, and show them your marriage certificate
  • You do not need to do any legal paperwork, in fact  it would be illegal to do so
  • If you are having a secular/civil ceremony you should, in consultation with your celebrant, decide whether the ceremony will be presented as a renewal of vows, a commitment ceremony, or a ceremony celebrating your marriage, while not creating it.

Keeping secret the fact that you are already married

This is where it gets interesting and complicated
  • if you are having a non-legal ceremony according to the rites of a particular religion, apart from the clergy person, no one needs to be alerted to the fact that you are already married
  • If you are having a celebrant-led ceremony, or a ceremony led by a friend who is not authorised to marry people, it is a legal offence for the guests to be misled to believe that the ceremony will create a legal marriage, so the guests have to be alerted to the fact that the ceremony will not create a legal marriage between you. Like everything, however, there are soft and tactful ways for your celebrant to do this. There is also no requirement that the guests be told in advance of the ceremony.

Are you allowed to sign a certificate after your non-legal wedding?

Of course you can, just as long as it doesn't have the words Marriage Certificate on it, or purport to be a legal certificate.

DIY Option


Ceremony Script: Inclusive Wedding $32

To purchase
                            of PDF book Ceremony Script - Inclusive
                            Wedding Created by Jennifer Cram authorised
                            marriage celebrant. Graphic on the cover is
                            a photograph of two silver wedding rings on
                            a latte coloured ribbon

The answer you've been looking for if you've been asked to conduct your friend's wedding but you aren't a seasoned celebrant.


No need to stress, or to spend countless hours searching the internet trying to find the perfect script. Not only will using this script take all that stress away, your friends will NEVER guess your secret. PDF format - Delivered to you via email - Flexible script with many options - Targeted guide to the different parts of the ceremony - Accumulated insight, wisdom, and experience of a top celebrant.

Jenny xxx Let's talk soon about how you
                      can have the best ceremony ever
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