Legal Issues with Universal Life Church “ordinations” in NC

If you get married by a minister of the Universal Life Church, American Marriage Ministries, or any similar organization that grants “instant ordinations,” then your marriage could be deemed voidable in a court of law.

The purpose of this page is to inform you of an issue under current North Carolina law regarding the requirements for a valid marriage, and the steps that Asheville Marriages (Love and Wisdom Inc.) has taken to protect the validity of your marriage. We feel that is important for each of our clients to understand the legal requirements of creating a marital union and that we take our role and responsibility to you seriously.

Under North Carolina law, marriage is a legal contract between two individuals who may lawfully marry. The State of North Carolina controls and regulates the institution of marriage, and state law sets out several requirements for a marriage to be valid.

Chapter 51-1 of NC Law: A valid and sufficient marriage is created by the consent of a two persons who may lawfully marry, presently to take each other as spouses, freely, seriously and plainly expressed by each in the presence of the other, 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 married; or

(2) In accordance with any mode of solemnization recognized by any religious denomination, or a federally or State recognized Indian Nation or Tribe.

Based on how the law is written, it would seem that marriages performed by Universal Life Church ministers are valid, and that is exactly what the Universal Life Church will tell you if you ask them. However, case law will tell you the opposite. There is one case that was decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1980, State v. Lynch, 301 N.C. 479, in which the court held that a marriage presided over by an officiant ordained by the Universal Life Church is not properly solemnized, as the Universal Life Church has no real requirements for ordination other than the submission of one’s name, and it adheres to no particular doctrine such that the court would identify it as a religious denomination. This case has not been overturned, and at least one later case was ruled the same way based on this precedent.

However, another case in 2014, Duncan v. Duncan, 754 S.E.2d 451, decided by the North Carolina Court of Appeals, states that even if the officiant is not properly credentialed to solemnize a marriage and that fact renders the marriage voidable, that marriage will not be declared as void if both parties to the ceremony choose to use the officiant and hold themselves out as a married couple following the ceremony. This case has likewise not been overturned.

Given that there is some instability in the law regarding the effect of an officiant’s ordination on a marriage, we at Asheville Marriages (Love and Wisdom Inc.) have taken affirmative steps to protect our clients and ensure the validity of the marriages over which we preside. All of our officiants have been ordained by organizations that require specific qualifications and adherence to a particular doctrine. Our officiants must go through a process of ordination and are not permitted to rely solely on ordination by the Universal Life Church or any other similar organization that grants instant ordination with no requirements or qualifications.

Just to be clear, if you were married by a minister of the Universal Life Church or similar organization, your marriage is still valid unless a court deems otherwise. NC marriage laws are currently in need of clarity and revision and certain government officials are working towards that end. We always keep a close watch on these developments and we always adhere to the law.