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Surprise Weddings

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Surprise Wedding

Keeping the secret of a surprise wedding meant my Saturday evening was spent lurking, sneaking and hiding so nobody saw my Marriage Register!

I have several surprise weddings in the pipeline at the moment. Some couples like them because the element of the unexpected means they can keep the wedding celebration as fuss-free as possible. These weddings are always very simple and laid-back.

Janelle and Tony decided on the classic trick – throwing an engagement party for their family and friends, which then became their wedding. Once the meal was over, Janelle ducked out to quickly change into a wedding dress, and I jumped up to “say a few words”, which led into their legal ceremony. Seeing everyone’s faces when the penny drops is always a picture, and they received huge cheers and applause. Some people had probably guessed what was going on, but we did manage to keep it from others until the last moment!

Surprise weddings can be fun, but they can also be fraught with danger. It all depends on exactly who is being surprised. If it’s either of the people getting married, then that’s a definite no, however romantic you might think that sounds.

As your Celebrant, I need to be satisfied that you are agreeing to get married with your full and proper consent. If you’re having a wedding thrown at you unexpectedly, then you are under pressure not to refuse and it isn’t a carefully considered decision. Therefore I would not agree to marry you.

Here’s what the Guidelines on the Marriage Act 1961 for authorised celebrants has to say:

Surprise weddings involve one of the parties to the marriage being ‘surprised’, either at or shortly before the ceremony. The most popular scenario involves one member of a couple wishing to ‘surprise’ the other party by organising the marriage without their knowledge and then presenting them with the complete ceremony as a romantic gesture.  

Surprise weddings raise an important and unavoidable issue in relation to legal validity of the marriage. It is best described as potentially placing 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 to marry 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 Marriage Act, that is, that the person’s consent to the marriage was not a real consent because it was obtained by duress or fraud.

However, surprising your guests is fine. The couple getting married completes the pre-wedding paperwork and checks as normal, so they are properly and jointly agreeing to the marriage, giving the required notice and consent. It’s up to the couple whether they want to tell their family and friends what they are up to!

I would add a couples of caveats though. Firstly, you need to provide two witnesses to the marriage, so I would strongly suggest that they are aware of the ceremony in advance so they are properly prepared.

Secondly, it might sound like a lot of fun to spring a huge surprise, but think about who might be upset or taken aback by finding out they are unexpectedly at a wedding. I would also recommend that your tell your parents, in particular. Parents often have long-held expectations when it comes to their children’s marriages. If there’s a risk surprising them may spark a family disagreement or rift, just think things through. And that’s pretty good advice for any wedding really.

By Stephen Lee
Sydney Marriage Celebrant