About Justices of the Peace
A Little Bit of History
JPs do More than Marry People!
In the U.S. every state had a Justice of the Peace system at one time or another. Duties varied from state to state and they still do — in states that still have JPs. Some responsibilities, however, are shared by JPs in most states:
- In states where they have judicial duties (and they don’t in New England), JPs operate at the lowest court level, handling misdemeanors and minor financial disputes.
- JPs are authorized to witness signatures and oaths, take depositions and acknowledgements, and administer oaths and affirmations.
- Depositions. A deposition is the taking of testimony under oath for use in civil action or probate court proceedings. In this context, a JP may also issue a subpoena to ensure that the witness appears at the deposition.
- Oaths and Affirmations. An oath is an oral declaration of responsibility made by a person assuming a role. The person then signs an affidavit, witnessed by the JP, attesting to the truth of the oath. (An affirmation, using words other than “swear” and “so help you God,” may be administered instead.)
- Minimal qualifications and little if any training are the rule, though there are exceptions. Salaries, if any, or a published payment scale are correspondingly low.
- But the one thing JPs from nearly all states can do (and the reason we’re discussing them here) is officiate at marriage ceremonies. (The glaring exception to the rule is Rhode Island.) JPs are standing in for the state when they join two people in marriage. When a JP signs the marriage license, s/he is attesting to the legality of the union.
Why Choose a JP for Your Ceremony?
America is a religious country, yet many couples decide to have a civil ceremony when they get married. Some of the reasons that may lead to the decision to choose a Justice of the Peace rather than a member of the clergy for their wedding officiant include:
- An interfaith couple might find it difficult to locate clergy willing to participate in an interfaith ceremony.
- The couple might feel that only the blessings of the state are needed to cement their union, not of a religious entity.
- The couple might prefer a non-denominational setting for their ceremony rather than a church, mosque or synagogue.
- The couple might prefer a ceremony that reflects their own views about marriage rather than that of a particular religion.
- Fearing rejection by a clergy person, a gay couple might feel more comfortable seeking a Justice of the Peace.
Here are seven steps to follow that will help to ensure that the JP you choose is the right one for you.
1. Know what you want.
Talking together about the kind of ceremony you envision and the characteristics of the JP who will officiate is an important first step in the process. Like most major decisions you will face in marriage, coming to a consensus about your goals ensures that you are on the same track.
Factors regarding the ceremony:
- Does either of you want to include religious elements in the ceremony?
- Will you write your own vows?
- Will you exchange rings?
- Will your parents or other relatives be part of the ceremony?
Factors regarding the officiant:
- Does either of you have a gender preference?
- Is the age of the JP important?
- Does experience count?
- Does the JP “get” your vision for the ceremony or is s/he eager to help you create one?
Answers to these questions, though not written in stone, can go a long way to selecting the JP who is right for you. It’s a good idea to write down your criteria as a check list for when you evaluate prospective JPs.
The process of selecting a Justice of the Peace should begin just after you have chosen a wedding date and confirmed your location. Just like popular wedding venues, in-demand officiants book weddings nine to twelve months and sometimes more than a year in advance.
2. Make a List of Prospects.
Where can you get a list of JPs? Well, you’ve come to the right place! Depending on the state where you’ll marry, findaJP.com may be the best source for officiants. If your state is covered by findaJP, start here! (And if your state is not yet on findaJP, please consult “Why Is My State Not Listed?” for tips on finding an officiant in your state.) Read the “rules” for getting a Marriage License on the State page and also the info about Wedding Officiants. Start your search in the region where your wedding will take place and read what the JPs in that region say. It’s hard to make a decision from the limited information included, but go with your first impressions. JPs in most states are authorized to officiate anywhere in the state so extend your search beyond the immediate region if you like. Selecting three to five prospects to follow up with should be sufficient.
3. Contact the JP
Contact the JPs on your list, preferably first by email. An email providing, at minimum, the date and location of your event will enable the JP to quickly decline if s/he’s not available. Mention anything else on your list that you’ve decided are crucial prerequisites for choosing a JP. For instance, if it’s important that your wedding is the only one performed by the JP on that date, say so now. If things click, talk on the phone. Exchange some more information. If the JP remains a hot prospect, schedule a meeting, which will most likely be at the JP’s home. Get good directions and don’t be late!
4. The Interview
This is probably the most important step. If you have done a good job so far, it won’t be difficult. In fact, it should be easy! You want to feel comfortable with your JP at the very least. Is s/he eager and able to satisfy your desires for the ceremony – its length, the participants, any rituals or traditions you want to be included? Conversely, if you haven’t gotten this far in the planning, is s/he a source of ideas? Will s/he be easy to work with? See below for tips on interviewing JPs.
Remember that the officiant you choose will be saying the words that will seal possibly the most important relationship of your lives. When you think back on your ceremony in years to come, the JP will be in the picture. If you feel simpatico and your questions have been answered, it is appropriate to discuss fees.
5. How much does the perfect JP cost ?
We’ve all heard the phrase,“You get what you pay for.” Although couples understand this when they select their wedding cake, flowers, music, attire, etc., when it comes to JP fees, in most states there are no established standards and it can be difficult to know what’s fair and equitable. Although many professional JPs charge fees commensurate with their time and services, other JPs are reluctant to place a monetary value on their role because they enjoy it so much. The bottom line is, if you can afford the fee your chosen JP charges, go for it! It’s your marriage ceremony! Don’t let $$$ stand in the way of choosing your perfect JP.
6. Evaluate your prospects.
Using the criteria you established in step 1, make your choice. Do let any other JPs who were under consideration know of your decision.
7. Contracts and Agreements
Most JPs will ask you to confirm your agreement in writing. You will probably be asked for a deposit or a fee to reserve your wedding date. Your agreement should specify payment terms.
Of course the questions you ask a Justice of the Peace during the interview will depend upon the kind of wedding ceremony you are planning. Here are some leading questions that may or may not be important to you. Looking through them, however, may prompt subject areas you hadn’t considered.
- Do you have a set ceremony or do you customize the ceremony for each couple?
- Do you have a policy on religious or spiritual ceremonies?
- Can we write our own vows or must we repeat after you?
- Can we include family members or friends in the ceremony?
- Do you offer bi- or multi-lingual services?
- Do you have your own microphone or audio system? If not, would you rent equipment?
- How much lead time is necessary to secure your services?
- If we have not finalized a location, can you help us find a great location for the ceremony?
- Have you done unity ceremonies [or wiccan or rose or …]?
- What are your thoughts on the length of a ceremony?
- Will you be performing the ceremony alone, or do you bring an assistant?
- How far will you travel?
- Will you attend a wedding rehearsal? Is there an extra charge?
- What are your feelings about same sex marriages?
- Do you wear a robe? If requested, would you wear something else?
- Can you recommend other wedding professionals with whom you work closely?
- Do you perform extreme ceremonies? (parachuting, skiing, underwater, etc.)
And there you have it. Finding the perfect JP is one less thing to worry about on the road to a perfect wedding!