For the Alaska Court System, Friday is wedding day.
After a break of almost three years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person wedding ceremonies have resumed at Alaska’s courthouses.
Anchorage, the busiest state courthouse for weddings, resumed knot-tying Jan. 20, and Palmer will follow suit March 3. Most of the state’s other courthouses have already resumed in-person ceremonies.
Courthouse weddings make up only a fraction of Alaska’s total marriages — four years ago, 608 of the state’s 4,774 marriages were in courthouses — but the return of weddings marks a return to normal for the Alaska Court System after COVID-19 safeguards.
In his State of the Judiciary address last week, Alaska Chief Justice Daniel Winfree said state courts “are at virtually the same levels of activity and productivity” that they had before the pandemic began.
This week, Winfree is retiring and will be replaced by Justice Peter Maassen.
“It’s one of the best things we get to do, actually,” Maassen said of courtroom weddings.
Most things that take place in a courtroom are adversarial, he said. Judges enjoy weddings, adoptions or the installation of a new judge, “anything where there isn’t an adversarial relationship moving forward, where we can appreciate what are often very beautiful working spaces and celebrate something that is important.”
Before the pandemic, about one-third of Alaska’s courthouse marriages took place in Anchorage, where Judge Thomas Matthews serves on the Superior Court and is presiding judge for the state’s 3rd District, which covers Southcentral Alaska.
The court doesn’t keep statistics about who’s getting married in the courthouse, but “anecdotally, we have people who show up for marriages of all different types, all different constituencies,” Matthews said.
“We have military couples who show up for getting married for somebody who may be deploying,” he said. “We get a fair number of people who are showing up on a second or later marriage. They’ve been down the big wedding scenario once, and now that they’re older, they’re just looking for a simple ceremony. That’s a fair number of people who come in. And then there’s a whole bunch of people, I think, who simply find a courthouse ceremony to be a simple process.”
In Anchorage, various courtrooms host marriages, depending on what else is happening in the courthouse, Matthews said, but they’re almost always on Friday afternoons.
Evidentiary hearings, jury trials and most court operations shut down at noon, clearing the schedule for other work.
In Anchorage, officials can usually fit in four weddings each Friday afternoon, but the number in other courthouses can differ.
Last Friday, as a climate protest took place in the plaza next door, Hillary Sheehan and Joel Hughes waited outside the Juneau courthouse in wedding finery.
“We don’t want something big and fancy. It just costs too much money. It’s hard to get everyone in one place and expensive. And we’ve already been together 17 years. So it’s like we’ve already been married,” Sheehan said.
She and Hughes each said the process was easy and something they’d recommend.
“I think the traditional wedding now is so non-cost-effective and astronomical; you’re basically paying for a big party for everyone else,” Hughes said, “because the honeymoon is actually the party you’re waiting to go on. I feel that this is probably a more cost-effective way to save it for the honeymoon and not for the friends and family for them to drink up.”
The first step to getting married in Alaska — whether at a courthouse or not — is applying for a marriage license. It’s $60, and there’s no online form: It has to be printed out, filled out, signed in the presence of a notary or a licensing official, then turned in to either a state courthouse or the licensing office in Anchorage or Juneau.
That can be done in person, or the form, copies of picture IDs, and payment can be submitted by mail to either licensing office or to the courthouse closest to where the wedding will take place. If you make a mistake while filling out the application, start with a fresh form. There are no extra steps for international visitors or noncitizens; if someone doesn’t have a Social Security number, they can leave that part of the form blank.
Some planning ahead is required — in addition to the time needed for the form to travel in the mail, it takes three days for the form to be processed.
After that, the completed license can be picked up from either licensing office or the courthouse it was submitted to.
Completed licenses can also be mailed, but the licensing office warns that regular mail can take up to four weeks, and it suggests paying an extra $9 for trackable priority mail.
Once someone picks up the license, it’s valid for 90 days. If the wedding is later, postpone picking it up — it can wait at the office for up to a year and still be valid.
No one younger than 16 can get married in Alaska, and anyone younger than 18 requires a court order. Proxy marriages — where someone stands in for one of the people getting married — aren’t allowed. If someone is getting married after a divorce, that divorce has to be final and registered with the courts before the new marriage takes place.
Under state law, a wedding needs to include only the people getting married, the person presiding over the wedding, and one witness. The law used to require two witnesses, but that was changed in 2022 by the Alaska Legislature. You can still find older, incorrect information online, including in some court system documents that haven’t been updated.
In Alaska, anyone can officiate a wedding. Religious leaders, judicial workers or elected officials can officiate for free, but everyone else has to pay $25 and fill out a form at a courthouse in order to become a marriage commissioner.
“It’s a pretty quick filing,” Matthews said. “Lots of people do this because they want some special family member or friend to do the ceremony for them, and the requirements to actually perform the ceremony are relatively simple.”
Law clerks at courthouses are trained, certified commissioners, and at many courthouses, they’re the ones who do the Friday ceremonies.
The form and process to become a commissioner varies from place to place, and courts can answer questions either in person or by email.
There isn’t a normal waiting period, but the commissioner has to wait until they have an official court order appointing them as a commissioner. Some rural courts ask that commissioner requests be submitted at least a week before the ceremony.
The actual wedding proceedings are up to the people involved. Alaska doesn’t require a particular wedding wording, ritual or ceremony.
Matthews said that if a couple does want to get married at the courthouse, they should remember that there’s no alcohol — so no champagne in the building — and there are weapons restrictions.
“So if they want to bring a cake, don’t bring a big knife in order to cut it,” he said.
For any wedding, whether at the courthouse or not, the only legal requirement is that the people getting married sign their license alongside at least one witness — such as the person conducting the wedding — and that the certificate be submitted back to the licensing office within a week of the ceremony.
The state will provide a decorative wedding certificate with the license, but getting an official certificate — something needed to prove marriages for name changes and other official actions — costs another $30 and can be requested after the wedding is recorded by the state.
Matthews, like Maassen, said the return of in-person wedding ceremonies brings a little brightness to the court system.
“For so many of us,” he said, “people who come into court are typically involved in an awful lot of conflict. And so, doing marriages, doing adoptions, it brings a little joy to people. It’s nice to have smiles on people’s faces and tears of joy instead of sadness when they’re at the courthouse.”
Correction: A new state law allows a marriage to be conducted with a commissioner and one witness. The initial version of this article incorrectly stated that no additional witness was required.
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