Wedding bells are ringing, but justices of the peace aren’t getting the call

These days, many newlyweds have touching stories about how they bucked tradition by choosing to be married by a family member or friend — an increasingly common practice in Massachusetts, where getting a one-day officiating license is a breeze.

But the trend doesn’t pluck at the heartstrings of all.

For justices of the peace — those professionals who’ve long had a lock on performing nonreligious ceremonies — every wedding officiated by a loved one means a job lost.


“It’s cutting our business a lot. Like a lot,” said Donna Michael, president of the Massachusetts Justices of the Peace Association. According to Michael, some in her organization are getting out because the work is drying up, even during these busy summer months. “I just had two people — just today — who are not renewing their commissions,” she said during a recent phone call.

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Consider the numbers. In 2015, there were 5,109 applications for one-day designations to perform weddings in Massachusetts. In 2017, the number jumped 35 percent to 6,908. By mid-May of this year, the state had already received 2,400 requests.

Of course, JPs are quick to defend their expertise, saying that just because you can be married by a relative or friend doesn’t mean you should. They hear stories about the friend with a reputation for waxing poetic who turns out to be a mumbler, or the favorite uncle who winds up ad-libbing jokes about himself.

The justices, who are appointed by the governor’s office, also say that some one-day officiants don’t understand the rules — including the one that requires them to be sober for the ceremony to be legal.

“It’s like hiring someone to be a lawyer who’s not a lawyer,” said Elizabeth Gemelli, better known as JP Liz, who’s held her license for 17 years.


Still the trend continues apace, as local wedding planners would confirm. Sarah Narcus, of the Boston-area business Without a Hitch, which focuses on day-of wedding coordination services, said that of the 48 weddings she worked on last year, close to 50 percent were led by friends and family. When she started her work in 2013, it was far less.

Claire Miller (center), a justice of the peace in Grafton, leads a service for Alex and Michelle Miliano in 2017.
George Street Photo & Video
Claire Miller (center), a justice of the peace in Grafton, leads a service for Alex and Michelle Miliano in 2017.

Planner Patricia Fratto, of the Lancaster wedding planning company Perfectly Coordinated, said that in 2016, 18 percent of the couples who hired her were married by a loved one. The numbers have continued to rise since then, and as of today, 63 percent of her 2018 couples will be married by family and friends.

Narcus and Fratto said the numbers keep climbing because nowadays, couples want every aspect of their weddings to feel personalized and unique. That personalization, they said, usually makes up for any imperfections in the delivery of the service.

“They’re not looking for someone they’ve never met before,” Narcus said. “They want to create something together, with a friend or family member. I’ve seen that movement in a big way.”

Michael, whose association has about 500 members (about a third of the JPs in the Commonwealth), said she’s seen the cultural shift happen over decades. More young people are “unchurched,” she said, and some stay single longer. Many tend to lean more heavily on the counsel of friends, which means they look to those same peers to witness their special events.


Wedding trends are also greatly influenced by pop culture, she said. Michael has a theory about how a certain hit sitcom kickstarted a national interest in one-day officiating licenses.

“ ‘Friends,’ ” she said, with a scoff. “Joey gets ordained. [The practice] didn’t become noticeable until that television show.” (Worth noting: “Grey’s Anatomy” is also known for episodes with friend officiants.)

Michael also said that the justices aren’t helped by Massachusetts’ system, which makes it easy to get approval to officiate. Some states don’t even offer a one-day designation, but here, it’s quick and cheap. In 2015, the application process was put online, and the fee dropped from $25 to $20 ($23.50 with fees). Paperwork can be filed up until a week before a wedding.

“Anyone can do it,” Narcus said of the process. “There’s no background check.”

Michael and other justices — many of whom do the work part time, mostly on weekends — believe that perhaps it’s too easy, and that the people with one-day designations don’t always understand the importance of the role and that it should be taken seriously.

“We serve as a witness for the state of the signing, the acknowledgement of a lifetime contract,” she said. “It’s the only lifetime contract on Earth. Valid everywhere on Earth. It’s not a small, inconsiderable thing you’re doing.”

On that, all agree. Many non-JPs who have donned the mantle for a day admit that it was a bigger job than they expected.

Boston writer Grace Dane Mazur, whose soon-to-be-released novel, “The Garden Party,” is set around a wedding rehearsal dinner, has officiated six ceremonies and said she’s put a moratorium on requests. Drafting a service can take her many hours. Running the show also means that she doesn’t get to be a typical guest.

Mazur also said that some couples continue to see their officiants as symbols of their unions, which can be complicated if the marriage doesn’t last. (Of the weddings Mazur officiated, three couples are no longer married.)

For JPs, none of this is a problem, and they’re quick to say that they can give couples a personal touch, too. The state prohibits JPs from charging more than $150 to lead a wedding ($100 if the event is in their own town), but they’re allowed to charge extra to create a unique service.

Claire Miller, a JP in Grafton, said her business has remained robust because she goes out of her way to make things as individualized as possible. She said she can spend about 20 hours preparing and delivering a personalized ceremony. Many other JPs offer that service, too.

Michael said her association is doing its best to educate clients on what JPs offer. She just asks that if couples do opt for friends and family, they don’t call on the real justices for free information. That happened to her recently; a man called to ask how he could get the right paperwork to officiate his daughter’s wedding.

“I really feel like telling these people, ‘Go pound sand,’ ” she said, laughing. “Not my problem, honey.”

Were a friend or loved one lead your wedding service? Did you hire a justice of the peace? Tell us who led your service and why you chose them (in the comments section).

Meredith Goldstein writes the Love Letters advice column for the Globe. Send letters to