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Picture this: a handsome young man is standing looking gobsmacked under the fronds of a palm tree, attired in semi-formal casuals, surrounded by laughing, clapping friends. At his side, holding his arm and looking ravishing in an exquisite gown, a young woman is speaking into a microphone provided for the DJ of the party: “Surprise, darling! We’re getting married right here and right now! It’s all organised!”

On the spot

It may seem like a romantic notion – to spring a surprise wedding upon one’s fiancée or fiancé. There are so many benefits one could envisage from this idea: saving one’s partner the hassle of having to organise the details; fitting in the wedding when it didn’t seem it could fit into the bride’s or groom’s busy schedule; getting the partner who’s dragging his or her feet to actually stand by the commitment made; reducing costs for the wedding; adding a special touch of magic (a “romantic gesture”) by having it be a surprise… but the truth is, it’s not legally permitted.

What Australian legislation has to say about surprise weddings

Simply put, a wedding where one of the parties (either bride or groom) is “surprised” by its being a wedding is not legally possible, and Marriage Celebrants are not permitted to solemnise such a wedding. To quote from the relevant document released by the Attorney-General’s department:

The legal issues that such ceremonies raise are the following:

  • There has been 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 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 Act – that is that the person’s consent to the marriage was not a real consent because it was obtained by duress or fraud.
  • The minimum notice period has not been satisfied – the notice period requires that both parties give notice of the intended marriage, not one.

Can the bridal couple have a “surprise wedding” as long as they both know about it?

If both parties (bride and groom) want to have a wedding in which the guests are not aware that the occasion is actually going to be a wedding, that is legal and perfectly possible. A good celebrant is able to get into the spirit of things by going “undercover”, as it were, not revealing his/her function until the moment arrives to get the ceremony underway. The families of the bride and groom do not have to be aware beforehand that the occasion is going to be a wedding – although keeping such information from people who might feel upset and aggrieved that they weren’t informed is fraught with its own difficulties. Each couple will have to decide whether the idea of a “surprise wedding” will work for their situation, but there are certainly ways in which the parents of the bride and groom can still feel involved, even if the actual wedding comes as a bit of a surprise. Every situation and every family is different – so there’s no one rule to fit all.

Points to consider

  • The celebrant must receive the Notice of Intended Marriage one month and one day before the date of the ceremony. Just because it’s a “surprise wedding” (with the guests not knowing it’s going to be a wedding), that does not mean the usual notice doesn’t need to be given.
  • Both the bride and the groom must be involved in giving the Notice of Intended Marriage. Quoting from the Attorney-General’s department: “The capacity for a registered marriage celebrant to accept a Notice of Intended Marriage with the signature of only one party (section 42(3)) relates to the signing of the Notice of Intended Marriage not the giving of the notice itself. Both parties must give at least one month’s notice of their intention to marry”.
  • The couple must provide two witnesses. “Under section 44, a marriage may not be solemnised unless there are present as witnesses at least two persons who are, or appear to the person solemnising the marriage to be, over the age of 18 years. The object of requiring the attendance of witnesses is that their evidence will be available, should the occasion arise, to establish the i of the parties or to testify as to the circumstances in which the ceremony was performed. It is, therefore, most desirable that the witnesses should be persons who know the parties to the marriage. This is the responsibility of the parties to the marriage.”
  • The couple should consider whether the surprise factor is desirable, if it will cause problems on the day. Some family members or very close friends may feel aggrieved if the wedding is a surprise to them. It is up to the couple whether or not this will be a factor.
  • If the couple is sure the surprise will cause no friction, both the bride and groom should remember that a secret shared is no longer a secret. If the bride and groom can’t resist telling “just one person” about the surprise, they might reasonably expect that that “just one person” might not be able to resist telling another “just one person”.
  • It is reasonable to inform the two witnesses about the wedding in advance, to ensure that they are there to perform their legal role in the ceremony.

Above all, a wedding should be a joyous ceremony of commitment and love. While springing a wedding on one’s fiancé/e is not legally possible, a “surprise wedding” can be a fantastic and memorable way of going about it – as long as the “surprise” is on the guests, not the couple.

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