This story appeared in some editions of Sunday’s paper.
At the end of March, Stefanie Bucholski and Mike Reisman got married on a date they picked out nearly a year ago. But the celebration looked nothing like the big Jewish ceremony they had in mind. Thanks to a new worldwide wedding crasher, COVID-19, they’re among the many couples in the region who have had to change their plans.
It was Saturday afternoon. Bucholski, dressed in a white gown, walked alongside her soon-to-be husband, four blocks over to her sister’s house. There, in the backyard, they joined hands to marry before a small group of three: Bucholski’s sister, brother-in-law, and a friend of her sister who happens to be an ordained minister. Everyone stood spaced out, except, of course, Bucholski and Reisman. An iPad live-streamed the ceremony through Zoom, allowing 40 friends and family members to join in, shed tears, and cheer from afar. The crowd would gather again later in the evening for a Zoom happy hour, when Bucholski’s dad delivered a short toast.
In December, the couple will host a reception to celebrate with a much larger crowd.
“It was a really sweet, intimate ceremony. A little strange, but not in a bad way,” says Bucholski, 32. "All the little squares on the [Zoom] screen was actually really cute.”
If you, too, have a wedding planned in the coming weeks, we’ve put together a guide to help navigate the situation. With a statewide stay-at-home order in place, even small gatherings are not allowed. As such, most couples will be advised to postpone their wedding until that’s lifted.
However, there are some caveats. If you need a legal marriage for health insurance, visa, or other “emergency” reasons, you may be able to move forward. Here’s what to expect as you consider your options:
Can you make your marriage a legal one right now?
Courthouses are currently closed, making it impossible to apply for a marriage license in person as you’d normally do. Yet, if you had a wedding scheduled for this month, you’ve likely already tackled that step.
“In PA, a marriage license is valid for 60 days, so I tell couples to apply six weeks before so they don’t have to stress out about it during their wedding week,” says local celebrant and ordained minister Alisa Tongg.
If you have the license, any qualifying officiant can complete it and return it to the courthouse by mail. Once the courthouse reopens, the paperwork will be processed.
“It’s official as soon as it’s signed, you just won’t get the certificate until after the courthouse opens up,” explains Tongg.
If you’ve opted for a self-uniting license, Philadelphia is allowing you to send it yourself by mail to the Register of Wills (City Hall, Room 181). It must first be signed by two witnesses. The date that it’s signed will be the official date of your marriage. As with a traditional license, you will receive your marriage certificate once the Register of Wills office reopens.
(Marriage laws vary state by state, and emergency modifications vary by county. Self-uniting licenses are not an option in New Jersey. In other Pennsylvania counties, self-uniting procedures may be different or temporarily not permitted. Contact your local Register of Wills office to confirm.)
What if I don’t have a marriage license?
You cannot get married without a license. However, in Philadelphia, there are some exceptions.
Starting April 6, the following individuals can apply for an “emergency marriage license”:
Concerned citizens with health issues that could lead to a fatality cause by COVID-19 symptoms
Frontline first responders
Individuals who were planning to marry but are now considering an accelerated timeline to add health insurance options for a couple facing immediate medical concerns
Individuals on a visa with a departure date approaching
At least one marriage license applicant must be a Philadelphia resident. You must have video-conferencing capabilities, and only self-uniting marriage licenses ($100) will be issued. Instructions for how to apply are posted to Philadelphia’s Register of Wills website, secureprod.phila.gov/wills.
Here’s how it will work: You’ll need to write an email explaining your circumstances. If your request for an emergency marriage license is approved, you’ll get an application sent to you by email. Once it’s filled out, you’ll be scheduled to attend a Zoom video conference to review your situation with a clerk. From there, you’ll mail your signed, completed application and $100 payment (money order only, payable to the Clerk of Orphans Court), along with one self-addressed, stamped envelope, to the Register of Wills office, which will review your documentation. The Register of Wills office will issue a self-uniting license by mail. It’s valid for 60 days.
When you get married, you’ll need signatures from two witnesses. Then you’ll mail the duplicate (bottom portion) of the self-uniting license by USPS overnight delivery with tracking with another self-addressed envelope to the Register of Wills.
After the office gets your paperwork, a marriage certificate will be mailed to you.
Can I get married by video?
If you already have a license or qualify for an emergency marriage license, it’s time to plan your ceremony. With the stay-at-home order in place, gathering with those outside your household is not allowed. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use video to throw a party with family and friends.
Your officiant, however, can’t be behind a screen. To make a marriage official, they’ll need to join you in-person, even if that means they’re standing six, 10, or 20 feet away. If you’re self-uniting, you’ll need two witnesses present.
“It’s a legality of all ceremonies — to ask someone if they have come here freely to marry this other person. And if you’re in a video situation, you simply can’t see if they’re being coerced," says Tongg.
Am I even allowed to host an in-person ceremony?
On April 1, a statewide stay-at-home order was announced. So what does that mean if you want to get married with, say, just your partner? If your officiant or two witnesses aren’t already your roommates, it’s not advised unless your marriage qualifies as an emergency situation. In other words: If you can postpone, you should.
What about joint health insurance?
Once your marriage is legal, you become eligible to change your health insurance or add your spouse. Those without a marriage license in hand will need to wait for the Register of Wills office to reopen to retrieve a wedding certificate.
If you’ve already acquired a license pre-COVID-19, Tongg suggests getting married with an officiant and then calling your insurance company.
“You won’t have your certificate yet, but you can take scans of your return — the copy of the signed license that you receive — and call the HR department of the insurance company to see if they can make an exception,” says Tongg.
If it’s an emergency situation, you should apply for an emergency marriage license (see above).
Should I reschedule?
The answer is likely yes. With the stay-at-home orders in place, even small gatherings are discouraged — as small as just you and two witnesses.
Talk with your current vendors and discuss their policies on rescheduling.
“I’m sending out a spreadsheet to all my clients that shows the remaining dates I’m available this year and next," says local wedding photographer Lily Szabo. “They can pick one of those dates, and reschedule free of charge.”
It’s a common policy among both photographers and venues.
“Now’s the time to be flexible with change, whether it’s the date, the venue, the vendor, or your guest list, and to remember what matters most — starting your life with someone and the health of your family,” says Tongg.