Do I have to change my name once I am married? and other wedding FAQ
Photo: Danelle Bohane

How much do celebrants cost?

There is no regulation regarding the fee that celebrants may charge for their services; the Registrar only advises that it be “reasonable” depending on the service offered. In general, celebrants’ fees range from $250 to $1000 or more (and there are some celebrants who work for free). The fee a celebrant sets is, at the end of the day, a business decision, based on the value they place on the professional services offered to their clients.

It is up to you how much you want your celebrant to do. Some will write and deliver the entire ceremony and guide you fully, every step of the way. Others may be happy to simply deliver what you have written, or officiate a standardised ceremony (similar to what is offered at a Registry Office.) When finding a celebrant who is right for you, it is worth keeping in mind that the marriage ceremony is at the heart of your wedding day and will set the tone for the rest of your celebration.

My style is definitely not that of “turning up on the day and saying the legally required bits”; quite the opposite in fact. I generally meet with my couples twice, usually at their own home; I research, compose, redraft and finalise the ceremony in close consultation with the couple; and conduct a rehearsal at the venue. On the wedding day I arrive half an hour before the scheduled ceremony start time and liaise with front-of-house managers at venues, the photographers, those working on the ceremony music, and anyone to whom you have delegated jobs (such as readers, or witnesses). I pride myself on knowing the names of the key members of your wedding party and guest list (eg Mums, Dads and Grannies) and making everyone feel that I know and understand where they fit into the dynamic of the day.

This level of service generally amounts to 12-15 hours of work per wedding. If you are particularly price-conscious, I recommend that you ask potential celebrants what work is included in the fee they charge.

Ultimately, choose a celebrant based on the style of day you are looking for – but don’t base your decision on price alone!

What should we talk about when first meeting a potential celebrant?

For most couples, the over-riding factor in choosing a celebrant will be whether there is an instinctive “click” and connection. Trust your instinct – do you like the celebrant, can you laugh with them and chat easily and do you feel confident that they will deliver a ceremony in the style and tone you want?

As your celebrant, I will be working closely with you on a very personal, candid level in the lead up to your big day, and on the day of your wedding it is my responsibility to ensure your ceremony runs smoothly. Accordingly, I like to get to know you! This means we will be doing a lot of talking, laughing, and story-sharing. I don’t judge, and neither do I counsel. That’s not my role. However, I will be asking you questions about your relationship, the highs and lows of your journey together, your plans for the future, and what “marriage means to you”. The answers to these questions help me craft a ceremony that is personal to you alone. So it is essential that we feel comfortable with each other!

The other aspect of my role as a registered celebrant is to ensure that you understand the legal aspects of getting married. I will inform you about the paperwork required by the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages, and answer any questions you have, for instance, about the registration of your marriage, and any subsequent name changes.

Very often, it is easier to tell your celebrant what you don’t want, rather than what you do want in your ceremony. (Often, couples have been to lots of recent weddings and have formed strong opinions about what they liked, and what was memorable for the wrong reasons!) So please don’t ever feel offended or awkward in telling me these things! If I can’t authentically deliver what you want, I will tell you, and refer you to a celebrant who I believe can assist you better.

Other fundamental questions that I encourage couples to discuss at the first no-obligation meeting are:

  • How many “touch points” (meetings) will we have before the wedding day (at least 3!)
  • Can we email, Skype and phone with questions, ideas and concerns? (Yes!)
  • Will we receive a draft of our ceremony to look over and comment on? (Of course!)
  • Is a rehearsal included in the fee? (Always)
  • What happens if you are unable to officiate our ceremony for some reason? (It happens! I have a trusted network of fellow professional celebrants, and I would not hesitate to ask any one of them to be your celebrant if my own circumstances (eg illness, injury) prevented me from doing so. This hasn’t happened, yet, although I have married a couple 24 hours after meeting them for the first time, when their booked celebrant was unable to work.)

Other questions you may want to consider include:

  • How many ceremonies does the celebrant book per day?
  • How long have they been a celebrant, do they have training, do they belong to a professional network e.g. CANZ, and what is their philosophy (style).
  • What will they wear during your ceremony?
  • Can they speak any other languages?
  • How long will they take to respond to enquiries?
  • What is their fee? (Notice how this is at the bottom of the list?!)

There honestly is no “dumb question” when it comes to asking your celebrant about your ceremony – after all, you have not done this before, and your celebrant has – many times!

What happens in a marriage ceremony?

The content of a contemporary marriage ceremony is up to you. In simple terms the content can be broken down into the following 4 categories:

  1. music (during bride’s arrival, signing the marriage papers, and couple’s exit);
  2. words of service (your love story, vows, ring exchange, conclusion);
  3. words of “decoration” (readings, songs, poems, blessings); and
  4. rituals (for instance, sand ceremony, quaich, handfasting, releases).

I offer my clients ideas, examples, anecdotes and suggestions based on what you describe to me in your “wish list” for each of these components. You may also find it helpful to think about the following questions under each heading below, as a step-by-step through a traditional ceremony structure.

Arrival of the bride:
What music will play?
Who will accompany the bride?

Introduction and welcome:
Any additional languages of welcome?
Acknowledgements to those present, and remembrance of absent friends?
Is this an “unplugged wedding”?

Your love story:
What does love and marriage mean to you?
What do you love most about one another?
What are some of the highs and lows of your relationship so far?

Readings by chosen guests:
Do you want a poem, prayer, blessing, song lyrics or prose? You may have a strong preference for classical literature, or modern music; some words in a foreign language, or from children’s books. You may feel the need to include something with religious meaning, a passage drawn from your ancestry or culture, or a spiritual verse. Or, none of these may have any meaning or resonance for you. In that case, no readings are needed.

Intentions
As required by law, you will say the following words yourselves, or affirm my question with the words “I do”: “I [AB] take [CD] to be my lawful wedded husband/wife” (or words to similar effect).

Ritual or Unity Ceremony
There are endless possibilities and they will not appeal to everyone. However there may be something symbolic or meaningful that sums up the tone or theme you wish to convey in your ceremony. Ultimately these unity rituals represent the joining together of individuals as an inseparable team through marriage: Sand blending, handfasting, drinking from the same glass, planting, lighting candles, casting pebbles or shells.

Vows
These are the focus of the ceremony and are your promises to one another. A method I advise to my couples who wish to write their own is:

  • write down three things you most love about your partner
  • write down three things you promise do do as their married spouse
  • “top and tail” your lines with “I choose to marry you today because…” (or words to similar effect!) and “I love you”…

You do not need to say the same thing as one another, nor do you need to memorise your vows. You are welcome to repeat them after me, or read from a cue card which I will provide once you have written down what you want to say. Some couples will prefer the traditional “to have and to hold” vows but add a modern twist to the end, such as “you are and always will be the love of my life.”

Your vows are personal to you so take time to enjoy the process of writing them and don’t worry what others will think – these are your love letters to one another, shared in your wedding ceremony at the moment you marry.

Exchange of Rings:
Most couples will give one another a ring. It’s also becoming common for some men to forgo a ring, but accept another gift instead, such as a watch, or cufflinks. As always, whether you follow this tradition is based on personal choice.
It is appropriate to exchange rings with some accompanying words highlighting the significance of the ring as relating to the vows just spoken, and the honour and pride of becoming married.
Pronouncement by Celebrant:
This is the magic moment where I pronounce you married, and invite you to kiss! I will always “exit stage left” in time for the photographer to capture this magic moment without a photobombing celebrant!

“Signing the Register”:

  • Will music be playing while we do this?
  • Who will our witnesses be?
  • You, together with your two witnesses, will sign the Particulars of Marriage, which will be inside a hardback folder provided by me, on a signing table. (I guarantee I will always have at least three pens on hand that work! I even provide the table and chair if required!) Each of you needs to sign twice. The bride signs her pre-married (“maiden”) name, i.e. the name she woke up with on her wedding day and which is typed on the Particulars. The groom signs, followed by the two witnesses who need to sign their name, print their name, and record their addresses twice. Finally, I sign. One copy will be folded and given to you or a designated person after the ceremony. I post the other copy to BDM.

Closing

  • Will there be a final blessing or reading?
  • How will we be referred to by the Celebrant when we are presented to our guests? eg “Mr and Mrs”, “Husband and Wife”, “John and Jane”, “the newlyweds”
  • Congratulations all round and a triumphant exit (which may be accompanied by great music, bubbles, confetti, petals, and of course, loud applause!)
  • The party begins…

We don’t want “religion” in our ceremony - is that ok?

As an “independent civil marriage celebrant” I am non-religious, or secular. This means that I am not affiliated to any religion, church or organisation. I am permitted to marry you at whichever location or venue you choose in New Zealand, and the content and structure of your ceremony is only limited by your creativity and imagination – I am willing to include whatever you wish, provided it is not illegal, or offensive! If there is an aspect of your ceremony that would not suit my style, I will let you know and refer you to a more suitable celebrant for your specific requirements.

I am happy to include in your ceremony aspects of whatever beliefs, values or rituals that have meaning for you, including any additional languages or cultures. The key to the process of creating your ceremony is that both you and I must feel that the words spoken are authentic, and an accurate reflection of your relationship and your love.

Sometimes, a couple will choose to have a religious aspect to their ceremony, perhaps because they were raised with Christian values, or because their parents or grandparents would appreciate the inclusion of a Bible reading, prayer or blessing. In other instances, the ceremony may be conducted by a civil celebrant, but in a de-consecrated church or outdoor chapel. Other couples may want a spiritual element to the service, something “pagan”, or a ceremony with a literary and poetic “flavour”. This is where I really love my role as your celebrant, because I have the opportunity to research, discuss and learn about these aspects of ceremony and celebration, and include them in new and creative ways. I am open to all of these aspects of a marriage ceremony and have included each of these for my previous clients.

What “legal stuff” do I need to know?

In the excitement of choosing flowers, table settings and outfits, it is easy to overlook the legal aspects of becoming married! Here’s where my training as both a celebrant and as a lawyer comes in handy! I will always explain to my clients at the first meeting what is legally required:

  • You need a registered marriage celebrant who has agreed to marry you. Only people appointed by the Registrar-General of Births Deaths and Marriages (Internal Affairs) as Marriage Celebrants, and whose names appear in the list of Marriage Celebrants in the New Zealand Gazette, have authority to solemnise marriages in New Zealand. Remember the old line in the cheesy tv-movie weddings where the celebrant says, “by the power vested in me, I declare you husband and wife”?! There really is a “power” conferred on me… (I just don’t use those words in my ceremonies!) Click here to check your celebrant is registered.
  • You also need a Marriage Licence. This authorises me to marry you at a stated venue. It is valid for three months. To get one, complete a “Notice of Intended Marriage” form, (for most of you, it will be document “BDM60”) which is available online through the Internal Affairs website. This costs $122.60. One of you will need to go in person to your local Births Deaths and Marriages Office, or Courthouse, to swear a statutory declaration (a legal promise that there is no reason you are not free to marry your beloved!), sign the form, and pay the fee. Processing your application takes three working days. After this time you will collect your licence, together with two copies of your Particulars of Marriage. It is the latter which you sign on your wedding day.
  • During the marriage ceremony, at some point each of you must say “I [full name] take you [full name] to be my legal husband/wife” – or words to that effect.
  • You need two witnesses (they can be anyone, including children), providing they understand the implications of the role.
  • During the ceremony, the two of you, your two witnesses and I, must all sign the Particulars of Marriage.

Note: You will receive one copy of the signed Particulars, and your Celebrant will send the other to BDM to register your marriage. The Particulars records the legal fact of your marriage, but is not the official record of it. A Marriage Certificate is the official document containing the registered information. This costs $26.50. The application form for this is printed on the back of the Particulars, or you can apply online.

Most organisations e.g. banks, and the NZ Transport Agency (driver licensing), will require the Marriage Certificate before changing your name on official documents.

Do I have to change my name once I am married?

Changing your surname is a very personal decision. I always ask my couples how they wish to be presented, or announced, to their guests at the conclusion of the ceremony. Some are very happy to be “Mr and Mrs Jones” straight away. If that does not feel right for you, it is appropriate to say “the newlyweds”, “the happy couple, John and Jane”, or even, “the bride and groom”.

There is no legal requirement to change your surname upon marriage, nor is there a legal process to follow if you do wish to take your partner’s surname. In New Zealand, you can change your surname following your marriage, through “usage and reputation”, i.e. you simply ask your friends, family and workmates to start calling you “Mrs Jones”. Changing your name “officially” is a more complicated and costly legal process and not required if you are simply adopting your married name.

To change your surname on bank accounts and official documents such as your driver’s licence or passport, you will need to show the appropriate office your Marriage Certificate and ask for your name to be changed on their records.

I don’t like the words 'lawfully wedded'… can I say something else?

While there is only one sentence that is required by law in a marriage ceremony, sometimes the “tone” of it can be off-putting for couples who prefer less traditional language or official legalese. The BDM website advises that at some point in the ceremony, the parties to the marriage must say:

“I [AB] take you [CD] to be my legal husband/wife” – or words to that effect.

The key words are “or words to that effect”. You need to satisfy the Celebrant marrying you, that you are who you say you are on the Particulars of Marriage, and that you are marrying of your own free will. So, your names, plus words indicating you want to marry one another are acceptable. (The phrase “lawfully wedded” is pretty archaic!)

There is sometimes debate over whether you must say your full name in the ceremony. Let’s face it, some folks really don’t like their middle name and would prefer it never sees the light of day! However, it will be typed on the Particulars of Marriage and any subsequent Marriage Certificate, and it is certainly my practice to use it at least once in the ceremony, usually either in the opening sentence of welcome or during the vows. If I say it, you don’t have to!

What do I do if it rains?

You can be the best wedding planner and organiser in the world, but you can’t plan for brilliant sunshine at 3pm every Saturday of the year! When you first choose a ceremony venue, it is vital to consider a “Plan B” or “wet weather cover”. Many regular wedding or function venues will have an outdoor option plus an indoor space, such as a marquee, room or covered veranda, where the ceremony can be held if it is raining. If you are not at a function venue, and instead are wanting to marry on a beach, in public gardens, a park, or on a boat, then you need to consider what you will do if it rains! You also need to write the physical address of both outdoor and indoor options on your “Notice of Intention to Marry” form.

I have officiated some amazing ceremonies quite literally IN rain, either because there was no indoor back-up, or because the couple really wanted to continue with their pretty outdoor venue and it was “just drizzle”. Personally, I don’t mind a spot of rain or wind, but do consider your guests standing around in inclement conditions. It might literally put a dampener on their view of your party! It also makes it more difficult for them to hear what is being said, and could compromise any electronics (music, the microphone etc). String quartets will not play for you in the rain either!

On the plus side, stormy skies can make for awesome photos, with dramatic lighting and sometimes awesome rainbows. On the down side there’s potentially major damage to heels, high dry-cleaning bills for muddy dresses, and the inconvenience to guests (e.g. elderly or heavily pregnant) whose mobility may be difficult. So, if at all possible, have a back up plan for wet weather and delegate the decision on moving under-cover to someone who will simply make the call, and stick to it.

What’s the difference between an MC and a Celebrant?

A celebrant is the “officiant” of your marriage ceremony, that is, they are legally empowered to conduct the marriage service and declare you “bound in matrimony”. Once the ceremony is over, and the paperwork signed, the celebrant’s role ends.

Some couples worry that they need to invite their celebrant to the reception, or pay for their meal. This is certainly not the norm, nor is it expected. Most celebrants will stay for a quick “congratulations” and possibly the group photo and perhaps one glass of bubbly if invited. Otherwise, they will quietly take their leave as soon as the ceremony ends.

An MC, or “Master of Ceremonies” on the other hand, takes up where the celebrant leaves off, by guiding the guests through the festivities, photos, meal, speeches, cake-cutting and dancing.

Typical MC responsibilities include:

  1. Introducing themselves to guests as the MC either before the ceremony starts (this may include housekeeping for the ceremony, e.g. that it is “unplugged”); or straight after it ends.
  2. Inviting guests to gather in specified groups for photographs.
  3. Inviting guests to be seated for the meal.
  4. Introducing the newlyweds into the reception.
  5. Introducing wedding speeches and perhaps giving a speech too.
  6. Reading any messages from absent friends (real or made up!)
  7. Announcing reception events such as cake cutting, throwing the bouquet, and first dance.
  8. Thanking guests for attendance at the conclusion of the formal part of the reception.

Should I have a 'surprise wedding'?

Some couples choose to keep their wedding plans “under the radar” and hold a surprise marriage service disguised as an ordinary party or family gathering. The element of surprise can have the benefit of keeping the stress and organisation levels relatively low-key, while the “big reveal” guarantees high excitement and emotion!

I have officiated a wedding which was masked as the couple’s son’s first birthday. There I was, lurking in the trees, pretending to be a guest (who knew literally no-one else there!) and eavesdropping on the guests wondering where on earth the mum and her birthday baby were. Suddenly, she arrived in a white dress, and her husband to be dropped to one knee to present her with the engagement ring! The looks on the guests were priceless and everyone had a superb time. The only slight downside was that it was hard to retain control of a large crowd of excited guests who all wanted to congratulate the couple, before the ceremony was actually finished!

A surprise wedding could still follow the same structure and plan as a “traditional” wedding. The only difference in execution that I would suggest is that you have a brilliant MC to announce to guests at just the right moment why they are REALLY there, and announce your arrival, and cue the music. Also, if there are key people that you really need/want to have at your wedding (who might not come if they thought it was “just a BBQ”), you should probably tell them it is a party they can’t afford to miss!! Finally, as you need to designate witnesses to sign the marriage licence, you would need to tell those people ahead of time and get them sworn to secrecy! (Yes, don’t forget the legal paperwork – or it really will be just a fancy BBQ!)

What is an unplugged wedding?

“All electronic devices must now be switched off…”

We are used to hearing this phrase on a plane, or when attending live theatre. Now, it is becoming common at wedding ceremonies too.

So what’s the buzz about so-called “Unplugged Weddings”?

In these days of technology and social media, where tweets, posts, tags and shares can go viral in a matter of seconds, many people feel the need to take photos and videos constantly – and they can and do! However, a marriage ceremony is an event which deserves respect, since for the couple, their families and close friends, it is a sacred and heart-full, emotional experience. This is obviously best enjoyed with one’s own eyes and ears, rather than through a tiny screen on playback mode or in a Facebook tag.

As a celebrant, I believe everyone should be fully present in a marriage ceremony, and able to enjoy the precious nature of the occasion.

Many of my couples are now specifically ensuring this, by requesting that no photos are taken by guests during the ceremony. It is common for the MC or I to say this before the ceremony starts. Some couples also state it on the wedding invitations, ceremony Order of Service, or on signs at the door of the ceremony venue. There are many ways of asking guests to “be nice – turn off your device”.

Like all things wedding-related, whether you want an “unplugged wedding” is a personal choice. While I respect your decision either way – and so should your guests – what I do know is that there will always be a very different vibe in an unplugged ceremony, compared to one where guests are allowed to wave their tiny screens (or large and sometimes noisy lenses) in the air! The couple and I can quite literally sense when the guests are paying full, focused attention to the ceremony, and it feels great!

Another reason couples prefer no candid social shots is courtesy to the paid professional photographer, whose job it is to capture great images of the day. You don’t need to look far on the internet to find examples of professional wedding photos ruined by guests! While it may seem funny to casual outsiders, it would not be so amusing if some of your most perfect moments (the “first look” of the groom to his bride walking down the aisle, the first kiss, the flowergirl tickling the pageboy, the newlyweds walking back down the aisle…) are upstaged by a guest’s elbow, head or entire body photobombing the shot, unable to be cropped out! You have usually paid a lot of money to the photographer in the expectation that great photos will be taken; if your guests are stepping in front of the photographer and blocking their view, it is impossible to recreate the moment and recapture the missed shot.

I do not believe it is in any way rude, or “precious” to politely explain to your guests that it is your wish that they see your faces, and you see theirs, unimpeded by cameras and iPhones during your ceremony, and in the photographs taken by the paid photographer. Looking back, you want to know that your guests were there with you in that romantic, sacred moment, witnessing something beautiful and feeling it fully. Your love story is the most important part of your wedding day, and by going unplugged, we all become more connected to it.

For as Helen Keller said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”