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How We Did It: Self-Officiating Wedding in Washington, DC in 7 Steps

There’s one big thing you won’t see in our wedding pictures, and that’s an officiant, because in DC. Washington, DC allows you to have a wedding without a priest, justice of the peace, or a friend who got ordained off the internet presiding over the ceremony. Instead, the couple can conduct the ceremony and marry themselves. It’s called a self-officiating wedding, and while many people choose this option when eloping, you can have a traditional wedding ceremony (like we did) with the couple themselves acting as the officiants.

The Quaker Wedding Tradition

First, some background: the concept of self-officiating weddings stems from the Quaker tradition. Quakers believe that no one can marry a couple except the couple themselves and God. This belief in the inherent ability of individuals to solemnize their own marriage has led to the practice of self-officiating weddings. It’s a deeply meaningful and personal experience that allows couples to take full ownership of their commitment to each other.

Self-officiating weddings are commonly known as “Quaker weddings,” though they are not true Quaker weddings just because they are self-officiated. Quaker wedding ceremonies, deeply rooted in Quaker values, are unique for their simplicity, equality, and community focus. The wedding takes place as part of a worship meeting, where the couple exchanges vows during a silent, meditative gathering without an officiant. This is followed by the signing of a Quaker marriage certificate by the couple and all attendees, symbolizing their community’s role in supporting the marriage. The Quaker wedding wasn’t always recognized by local jurisdictions, and having the wedding certificate witnessed by all those present served as a legal protection for the couple and the validity of their union.

The wedding is typically much less formal than common American weddings, reflecting the Quaker commitment to simplicity and focusing on the spiritual union rather than material elements.

Painting of a Quaker woman and man getting married set in 1820
Quaker Wedding, 1820 by Percy Bigland

The Quaker wedding is a deeply contemplative event, characterized by periods of silence where those gathered reflect and may speak if moved by the Spirit. These are not traditional wedding speeches and are not meant to be toasts or funny stories, but rather spontaneous, heartfelt messages shared. This involvement of friends and family creates an atmosphere of introspection and communal support. The reception typically follows the ceremony’s tone, often featuring potluck-style food and simple festivities, emphasizing the importance of community participation and shared celebration.

It can be confusing if you have never experienced a Quaker meeting. I am Quaker and grew up going to Quaker meeting, so the idea was familiar to me. But for many, it is a foreign concept, and this video does a nice job explaining how a Quaker wedding works:

Self-Officiating Weddings in Washington, DC

Washington, DC is one of the few places where self-officiating weddings are legally recognized. Since 2014, the District of Columbia has allowed couples to choose the option of self-officiating on their marriage license. This means that you and your partner can have a ceremony that is entirely led and performed by the two of you. It’s a unique opportunity to create a wedding experience that truly reflects your love and commitment.

While many people choose to elope when they self-officiate, it doesn’t have to only be for courthouse weddings. You can walk down the aisle, stand in front of your friends and family (and God, if you believe), and self-officiate your own wedding however you want.

How to Self-Officiate Your Own Wedding (Without Eloping)

Couple exchanging rings during a self-officiating wedding in Washington DC
Our self-officiating wedding
Photo by Andrew Morrell Photography

Step 1: Decide how closely you want to follow Quaker traditions

Is self-officiating your own wedding the only tradition you want to include in your own ceremony? Do you want to exchange traditional Quaker vows? Do you want to have your guests sign a decorative wedding certificate in the Quaker tradition? Or do you want a full-blown Quaker wedding in your meetinghouse?

In my own wedding, there were some compromises. I wanted to self-officiate, use the traditional Quaker wedding vows, incorporate the signing of our Quaker wedding certificate into the ceremony, and include the silent prayer and witnessing from meeting into the ceremony. My now husband, who is not Quaker and was not brought up around it, did not want the Quaker meeting-style part of the ceremony. I think he was right that our guests, the vast majority of whom were completely unfamiliar with Quaker traditions, would not understand and it would not go as I dreamed.

Step 2: Write your vows

Your vows are what you are going to be saying to each other to perform the marriage. Instead of an officiant saying, “do you take this person to be your lawfully wedded spouse?” as in a traditional ceremony, you will be speaking directly to each other. When writing your vows, you should include anything that is meaningful to you from those traditional ceremonies, and decide who will say it.

We opted to use traditional Quaker wedding vows. We exchanged the same vows, each taking turns to repeat them. They are succinct, egalitarian, and conveyed everything that we wanted.

In the presence of God and these our friends, I take thee to be my spouse, promising with Divine assistance to be unto thee a loving and faithful partner so long as we both shall live.

Step 3: Plan the self-officiated ceremony

While you’re writing your vows, the shape of your self-officiating wedding ceremony may start to take form.

Prelude & Processional

Not everyone is familiar with Quaker traditions. Your wedding may be the first that they attend where the couple is officiating. You will want to set them up to feel comfortable, and plan to have messaging in your program about what they can expect. We included a note about it being a Quaker-inspired wedding, what Quakers believe, and what self-officiating a wedding means.

You have an infinite number of ways to do the processional. You can have a traditional American processional with wedding party walking down the aisle and the bride being given away by her father, or you can create your own traditions with the couple walking to the front together.

Self-Officiated Ceremony

Wedding program on chair describing Quaker-inspired wedding
Our wedding ceremony plan
Photo by Andrew Morrell Photography

Within the ceremony, you may want a friend or family member to provide some opening remarks to kick things off and relieve some of the pressure off of yourself. This is a momentous day in your life, and those worried about nerves could benefit from someone else speaking and acting as a master of ceremonies or otherwise welcoming people to the marriage ceremony.

My (now) husband and I decided to completely run the ceremony ourselves, but my friends Brian and Brian did have a friend serve as the more typical officiant. In their self-uniting wedding at a local restaurant in DC, their friend was able to preside over everything, help guide the couple when exchanging vows and rings, and generally ran the show. However, since legally Brian and Brian were self-officiating, their friend did not have to get ordained on the internet. Be sure you let your selected master of ceremony knows there’s no additional paperwork they need to do though; in this case, their friend did end up getting ordained off the internet because he assumed he would need to.

If you’d like to include the Quaker silent reflection and prayer, you can offer a moment of silence allowing everyone to reflect inwardly and center themselves in the moment. You could also go a step further and set a certain amount of time where guests can stand and share brief messages of love, support, or advice, similar to a Quaker meeting. Think about where in the ceremony you would like this to occur.

You’ve written your vows, but how do you want that to flow? Who will say the vows first? Will you be exchanging rings as a part of the vows, or separately? When will you kiss (if at all)? After we said our vows, we exchanged rings and then kissed. We were nervous, but it was such a simple process.

Think through if you want to have a Quaker marriage certificate to sign during the wedding ceremony. We had one printed, signed it ourselves, and then had our families and wedding party sign after as as a part of the ceremony. This did take a little time, and we had our DJ play an instrumental version of Signed, Sealed, Delivered while this was taking place to keep interest. If you want all your guests to sign, I would suggest you have a plan for that, and for it to occur before it gets too late in the night.

You could have some parting words before you walk back down the aisle as a married couple, or you could do as we did and just smile, cheer, and walk back down with our wedding party following

Step 4: Order your Quaker wedding certificate (optional)

Quaker marriage certificate
Our Quaker wedding certificate

If you would like to incorporate the Quaker wedding certificate into your ceremony, you will need to get a design and have it printed. There are a number of shops on Etsy where you can order a design, or you can make one yourself. I used Canva to create ours, and then had it printed.

For printing, I tested a couple options, but ended up getting it printed at Archival Arts in Halethorpe, MD. I wanted an archival print that would last a lifetime. They were very helpful in making sure I was choosing the right materials to stand up over time and work for signing, and we settled on a 16″x16″ watercolor print with a 1″ border for framing. I ordered it about a month before the wedding and it was ready in plenty of time, but of course you’ll want to leave as much leeway as possible.

Step 5: Obtain your marriage license

Couple standing with self-officiating marriage certificate outside courthouse in DC
Getting our self-officiating marriage certificate at the Moultrie courthouse

To begin the process of self-officiating your wedding in Washington, DC, you can start the application online, but you will need to obtain your marriage license in person with you and your fiancé both present. The DC Marriage Bureau is located in the Moultrie Courthouse at 500 Indiana Avenue NW. You can visit the courthouse between 8:30 AM and 4:00 PM on weekdays to apply for your license. They also have a wait time page that tells you how many people are in line.

Once at the courthouse, you will need to check in and wait in line. When it’s your turn, you’ll need to fill out the marriage license application form, and you’ll tell them that you will be self-officiating your wedding. This means that one of you will sign off as the officiant, taking on the responsibility of leading the ceremony. While you will both be officiating, you do need to choose one person as the officiant on the form.

The application will require basic information such as your names, dates of birth, and social security numbers. Make sure to bring valid government-issued identification, such as a driver’s license or passport. Remember, both partners must be present at the courthouse when obtaining the license for a self-officiated ceremony.

The fee for a marriage license application is $45, which includes the cost of the “Certificate of Marriage.” This is paid onsite via cash, credit card, check, or money order directly to the court, down the hall from the marriage bureau.

You’ll return back to the marriage bureau with your receipt, and complete the application paperwork. At this point, the approved paperwork is handed back to you, but you are not married quite yet.

What should I wear at the courthouse?

You can wear whatever you want! I saw people dressed casually and formally while waiting out turn at the DC Marriage Bureau. We dressed casually, since it wasn’t actually our wedding day. I wore a top I like and a special necklace, but it was definitely an outfit that I’d wear on any summer day.

How long will it take?

We probably spent about 30 minutes waiting our turn, then 20 minutes to answer the questions from the marriage bureau, pay the fee, and finish up the paperwork. You can view the Marriage Bureau’s wait time page that tells you how many people are in line before you go, or scope it out in the lead up to see if the time you want is normally busy. After we finished up the paperwork, we left, had our ceremony, and returned days later to file the marriage license.

Step 6: Have your ceremony

Couple signing Quaker wedding certificate during a self-officiating wedding in Washington DC
Signing our Quaker wedding certificate during our self-officiated wedding in Washington, DC Photo by Andrew Morrell Photography

Now comes the exciting part–your wedding day! As self-officiants, you have the freedom to choose any location in Washington, DC to exchange your vows. Whether it’s a traditional wedding venue, a picturesque park, a historical monument, or even your own backyard, the choice is entirely yours.

The only place off-limits is the courthouse: self-officiating weddings cannot happen at the courthouse itself. If you like the courthouse option, you just need to take a few steps off the property and have your self-officiating wedding there. John Marshall Park (where 5th Street used to be) is around the east side of the building, and is a nice location to exchange your vows with lots of shade. Judiciary Park is across the street but more open.

Looking for cheap wedding venues? Check out my list of cheap wedding venues in DC that I considered.

You’ll need to sign the actual marriage license (not your decorative Quaker one). Some people do this the next day to avoid the stress of one more thing on your plate on your wedding day.

Step 7: File the marriage license

After your ceremony, you will need to return to the DC Marriage Bureau to file your marriage license. This is an important step to ensure that your self-officiating wedding is legally recognized. Make sure to return the license within 10 days of your wedding to complete the process.

Unlike getting your marriage license, this does not have to be done in person. You can mail in the completed certificate if you want. For me, going to the post office and getting it mailed was going to be just as much of a hassle as going to the courthouse and filing it in person, and I wanted to be sure it was received. Personally, it gave me more peace of mind to take it in person, so it was worth it (even though I didn’t realize I forgot it at home until I got to the courthouse, got rear-ended on the way back home to get the certificate, and had to drive back to the courthouse again).

What is the marriage date: the date you signed or the date you filed?

The wedding date on your marriage certificate will be the date you signed the license. The dates you went to the courthouse to get the license and the date you filed will not be the date of your marriage on the wedding certificate

Think of it this way: the certificate is confirming that your marriage happened and providing the details. It’s certifying that you got married on a particular day. While you need to file it within 10 days of the wedding, the date that legally matters is when the marriage actually happened.

Is a Quaker Wedding Right for You?

Quaker-inspired weddings, or self-officiating weddings, are a unique and meaningful choice for couples who value personalization, intimacy, and authenticity. If you are looking for a wedding experience that allows you to fully express your love and commitment, a self-officiating wedding ceremony in Washington, DC might be the perfect fit for you. Remember, it’s your special day, and you have the power to create a wedding that is truly reflective of your unique love story. You can make the day whatever you want it to be.

If you have any questions about the process or things to consider, let me know in the comments! I’ll be responding quickly to give you some clarity.

Valerie Moore

Having lived in Washington, DC for the past 16 years, Valerie has a lot of thoughts about the best things to do, eat, and know around the city. She loves doing deep dives into the interesting things she finds, and sharing with the world. You'll often find her dog, Lil Mikey, along for the ride.

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