| Wedding Ceremony | Wedding Legals |
For all sorts of
reasons you might want to say I Do
by friends and loved ones, but also want to skip the
hassles that come with wedding planning when everyone
knows when and where you are getting married.
Regardless of the size of the wedding (anything from
elopement, to microwedding, to a very big guest list),
more and more couples whose marriages I officiate are
choosing to have a surprise wedding
that's perfectly legal, as long as the actual marriage
isn't sprung as a surprise to either (or both) of the
To keep the fact that they are getting married a
secret, couples are inviting guests to join them for a
different sort of event - a milestone birthday, an
engagement party, a New Year's Eve party, their
child's naming ceremony, or just a family get-together
have all been a feature of surprise weddings. I've
created and conducted surprise marriage ceremonies at
all of the above. I've also done several where the
couple just invited two friends around for drinks and
to see their renovations. And in one memorable wedding
I officiated, the couple told everyone they were
getting married privately at the Registry Office
earlier in the day and invited everyone to join them
for a late afternoon celebration. We were all gathered
at the Harry Oakman Pavilion when they arrived, all
dressed up, announced to everyone that they were
getting married then and there, tapped the bride's
grandparents on the shoulder as witnesses, and pointed
everyone in the direction of the United Services Club
across the road for a full-blown wedding reception
after the ceremony.
What is more difficult, however, than surprising
guests, is when I'm approached by one or other of the
couple (usually the groom), wanting to surprise the
other. I have to say no. The Marriage Act is very
clear. Surprise weddings are illegal if either of the
marrying couple is being surprised. Or if both of them
are. Such situations raise the spectre of forced
marriage at worst, and the issue of real consent at
best. And celebrants are expressly forbidden to
solemnise the marriage under those circumstances.
For your marriage to be legal both of you
give real consent
at every step of the
way. What that means is that neither of you must
be put in a position where you feel under pressure to
agree because it would be difficult for you to say not
, not yet
, or not at all
any point. On occasion, celebrants are asked to
go along with one of the party's plan to surprise the
other over the actual wedding date where both parties
have signed the Notice of Intended Marriage and the
full notice period of a calendar month, has been
given. The answer must still be no. Completing,
signing, and lodging the Notice of
is just that, you are giving
notice of your intention to marry one another. It is
not a binding contract.
This is what the Attorney-General's Department said in
The legal issues that such ceremonies
raise are the following:
Who has to be in on the secret?
There has been undue pressure on the
'surprised' person to agree to the
arrangement. Even if there is evidence that
the person would previously have agreed to a
marriage proposal, their consent must not be
assumed. No person can be put under pressure
to enter into a marriage and the pressures
imposed by a 'surprise' wedding could place
in doubt the validity of the marriage under
section 23B of the Act - that is that the
person's consent to the marriage was not a
real consent because it was obtained by
duress or fraud
The minimum notice period has not
been satisfied - the notice period requires
that both parties give notice of the
intended marriage, not one.
The two of you, and your celebrant.
it. The two of you need to agree to marry one another,
and also agree on the date of the wedding. For legal
reasons, your celebrant has to have your Notice at
least a month before your planned wedding day. For
good practical reasons, your celebrant also needs to
be in possession of all the details about the when and
where of the ceremony.
- You both have to complete the Notice
of Intended Marriage and lodge it with your
celebrant at least a month before you can legally
- You both have to know (and agreed to) the date
on which you will marry.
- And obviously you both have to be able to be at
the venue, along with your celebrant and two
witnesses, in order to have the actual ceremony.
Proxy marriages, or marriages via Skype or
Facetime, are not possible in Australia. You all
have to be in the same space.
For other good practical reasons anyone else providing
a wedding related service needs also to be in on the
secret - photographer, videographer, caterer, venue,
hair and makeup services etc etc Naturally, all
of these service providers also need to be sworn to
secrecy if you are planning to surprise the guests.
You can write it into your contract with each of your
providers to make sure they don't let the cat out of
the bag either inadvertently, or in pre-ceremony
social media posts.
Who can be kept in the dark?
Anyone who isn't one of you or your celebrant. Which
means there are plenty of legal ways to have a
surprise wedding, or a wedding with surprises.
Is there anything one of you can surprise the
Actually, yes. Quite a lot in fact. Secrets and
surprises can be a lot of fun. And, with permission, I
usually include at least one surprise in every wedding
As long as the legal boxes are ticked, which includes
giving the required amount of notice, virtually
anything else can be a surprise organised by one of
the marrying couple for the other. Or by someone else
for the couple. One word of caution, though, the
content of the ceremony should be something that you
both work on with your celebrant. I work with you to
develop the ceremony (from scratch, no pre-written
mix-and-match ceremonies), so that, well ahead of your
big day, you are both really familiar with what I am
going to say, the role of anyone else, and all the
Here are some of the ways one of you can legally
surprise the other
- Where the ceremony is held
If you've ever watched reruns of Don't Tell
the Bride, a TV reality series
where the groom has to organise every aspect of
the wedding, including the venue, wedding
dress, and hen and stag parties, surprising the
bride, you will see that, as long as the
bride is aware she's getting married, and what
date, the venue can be a surprise.
- Processional (Entrance) music
Some years ago I married a couple who had
"clicked" on first meeting because they discovered
that they had both been addicted to the 80s
animated series The Mysterious Cities of Gold.
The bride's brother was a bit of an expert and was
handling the music for their ceremony at Old
Government House, so between the two of them they
organised a surprise for the groom. He was
expecting the doors to open and the Louis
Armstrong version of La Vie En Rose to
start playing. Instead, with the doors firmly
closed and the bride nowhere in sight, he heard
the familiar narrative
The surprise and delight on his face was fantastic.
It is the 16th century. From all over
Europe, great ships sail west to conquer the
New World, the Americas. The men, eager to
seek their fortune, to find new adventures in
new lands. They long to cross uncharted seas
and discover unknown countries, to find secret
gold on a mountain trail high in the Andes.
They dream of following the path of the
setting sun that leads to El Dorado and the
Mysterious Cities of Gold.
- Where the reception is held
- Theme and styling of the ceremony space
and/or the reception
- Special guests, or messages from special
There is nothing lovelier than one, or both,
of the marrying couple being surprised by the
attendance of a special person they thought would
not be able to make it. Or being able to
include in the ceremony a personal message from a
special person who was not able to make it. In
fact, where one of you has family or friends who
can't make it to the wedding, I often suggest to
the other that we contact that person and ask for
a message to be sent directly to me so I can
include it in the ceremony as a surprise.
- Services such as a professional videographer
or photographer that had been deemed not
- Honeymoon destination
In short, virtually anything that is not part of
the legal requirements.
What about the Witnesses?
As long as the witnesses have agreed to be your
witnesses before the ceremony starts, and are
present for the whole ceremony, it is perfectly
legal to surprise them, whether or not the whole
wedding is a surprise to the guests. Some couples
word up very special friends a while before their
surprise wedding. You need to be absolutely
confident they can keep the secret. With others, I
have had the pleasure of announcing that their
mothers will be the witnesses. Mums never say no.
And there is always the option of a witness lottery,
pulling the names out of a hat, or, as I experienced
one hilarious New Year's Eve surprise wedding, out
of the bride's father's sporran.
And the celebrant?
Your celebrant has to know when and where the
ceremony is being held, and that there is no legal
impediment to the marriage (which includes the issue
of real consent). Your celebrant also has to
be able to print and bring the certificates
including the details of the venue where the
ceremony is to be held. I did, once, have a
groom who was adamant that the ceremony would be
held at a secret hideaway. All he was willing to
tell me was that I would need to drive to a certain
place on the highway. Park. And wait to be picked up
in a 4WD by persons unnamed and driven by them
across several creeks to a cabin in the bush.
Naturally, I refused. On two grounds. One I was
concerned about legality, and being in a place where
I couldn't easily leave should there be some other
legal impediment to the marriage. And secondly,
personal safety was potentially an issue. So I
withdrew my services.
My top tips about surprising the guests
- Come up with a good story. Engagement parties
(particularly if the couple has been together for
some time) are now such an obvious ploy that I'm
seeing guests turn up with a gift and two cards -
one if it is only an engagement, and one in case
it turns out to be a wedding
- Be prepared for some people not to come based
purely on the fact that they don't know it is a
- Decide ahead of time how you are going to spring
the surprise - when they come in the door, or
later just before you intend to start the
ceremony. This decision would influence whether
you decide to greet guests in your wedding attire,
or disappear at some time later to change into it.
- Allow for your celebrant to arrive later than
the guests. Having a complete stranger present
often arouses suspicions, even if they do have a
good cover story.
- Tell your mothers a day or so before, so that
they can turn up nicely dressed with their hair
done. And your fathers so they can shave, and
dress nicely too. They will never forgive you if
they look like dags in your wedding photos.
- Be prepared for some raucous reactions and
"participation" in the ceremony. A surprise
wedding can never have the gravitas and formality
of a conventional wedding, but that's one of the
very good reasons for choosing to have one.
Thanks for reading!