Marriage by Skype

When advanced telecommunications is the only way to get you to the church on time

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Proxy marriages are nothing new, but like most things not invented in the Internet era, the Internet is reinventing proxy marriages.

The New York Times recently reported on a couple that reconnected on the Internet after many years and got married via a Skype video call, the bride in Queens, New York, and the husband in Bangladesh. According to the Times, the couple “had met in person only once, years earlier, in passing.”

Remote courtships are nothing new—in the movie The Harvey Girls, set in the 1800s, Judy Garland’s character rode out on the same Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe train as the Harvey waitresses in order to meet and then marry a man she had only corresponded with after reading his newspaper ad.

She and her postal fiancé came to their senses after meeting in person and broke the engagement. Does Skype provide the same reality check? It seems like just one of many things to wonder about in the modern age of Internet dating, and now marrying.

My guest today is Adam Candeub. He’s a professor of law at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, and the director of its Intellectual Property, Information & Communications Law Program. He joins us by proxy—the phone, that is.

Adam, welcome to the podcast.

Adam Candeub: Thank you for having me.

Steven Cherry: Proxy marriages aren’t that common, and when they’ve been used, it’s mostly when a soldier is overseas. What’s different about a Skype wedding?

Adam Candeub: Well, proxy marriages and Skype weddings are a little bit different. Proxy marriages were very common in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and you would actually have someone standing in for the groom or the bride, an actual physical person. And there are about six states that still recognize or explicitly recognize such marriages, but generally under very limited conditions.

So Delaware, it’s only if the bride or groom is very sick and can’t go to the church or synagogue. In Texas, it’s for members of the military. That’s related, but a little bit different from, distance marriage, where vows are actually exchanged over some sort of communications medium. And historically it’s been done over the telegraph, it’s been done over the telephone, and now, quite logically and inevitably, it’s being done over Skype.

Steven Cherry: The couple that The New York Times wrote about, New York State forbids proxy marriages, but the laws of Bangladesh allow it, which in turn makes it legal in New York State after all? Help us out here.

Adam Candeub: Yeah, it does seem a little strange. So the general rule here is that a jurisdiction, whether that’s a state of the union or a foreign country, will recognize the marriage performed in another jurisdiction or country if it is valid under that country’s laws. So if proxy marriage is valid under Bangladeshi law, then New York would end up recognizing the Bangladeshi marriage, but it itself would not end up being a New York marriage.

Steven Cherry: There have been gay marriages where the couple are in a state that doesn’t permit them but the minister’s state does, so the couple in these cases are in the same place together but only the minister is remotely connected. Are those marriages valid?

Adam Candeub: Well, that’s a very interesting question. There was a case that involved Mr. Mark Reed and Mr. Dante Walkup, who were a gay couple who got married in Dallas and the W Hotel, and, of course, Texas does not allow same-sex marriage, but they beamed in a minister from the District of Columbia, which does allow gay marriage.

And if you look at the actual statute in the rules, there’s a very good argument that that was a perfectly valid D.C. wedding. But once they got a little publicity, the D.C. registrar of marriages essentially said the marriage was not valid, and this has been somewhat disturbing, because as the research of me and my coauthor, Mae Kuykendall, has shown, D.C. has allowed a proxy marriage several years earlier of a serviceman serving overseas. So the offices that register marriage are often inconsistent in their application.

Steven Cherry: I should mention, and I guess this is in the interest of disclosure, I’m licensed to perform marriages in New York City. I’ve done two of them, and I have a third coming up in November, so I’m curious, as I said before. New York State bans proxy marriages, but how do they do that? Is there a law that the couples have to be, I don’t know, within 2 meters of one another?

Adam Candeub: [laughs] That’s a good point, and that’s why, if you study the history of this, you’ll see that lots of people have—to answer your question briefly: The laws are often vague. They often assume that there’s a ceremony being performed and that everyone is present, but often there’s nothing explicit about that. Because there’s nothing explicit, people can use telephones or they use Skype, and there’s a real legal issue whether that’s valid. Proxy marriage actually has someone, a real live person, standing in for the bride or groom, generally requires a specific statutory permission, and if that’s not there, you can’t really perform a valid proxy marriage.

Steven Cherry: Where it is permitted, and this is a moot question for me, I guess, because New York State doesn’t allow them in the first place, but I’m kind of curious about the logistics. I mean, how is the license handled? I would normally take the groom, the bride, the two witnesses over to a table and get all the signatures, for example.

Adam Candeub: Right. So, for instance, Montana offers double proxy marriage. It’s the only state in the union that allows both the bride and the groom not to be present. And what you do is you pay a fairly hefty fee of about US $1000 or $2000 to have a lawyer or agent go to the courtroom, and I guess the lawyer’s secretary or whomever plays the groom, and the lawyer, male or female, plays the bride, and they essentially have the correct forms, they get the license, and they are married. And it’s just like any other marriage in a courtroom setting.

Steven Cherry: As the officiant, I’m pretty confident that a hand in marriage is freely given when the ceremony is in person. I’ve talked to the couple, their friends and family are there to bless the union, and, by the way, as far as I’m concerned, the attendees are doing the marrying. I’m just sort of channeling their intentions, and they in turn are representing our society as a whole. I’m not going to ask your legal interpretation of my theory of performative utterances there.

Adam Candeub: [laughs] I’m happy to talk about that.

Steven Cherry: Well, maybe we’ll get to it then, but the whole intention thing seems less assured by phone or computer.

Adam Candeub: You’re absolutely correct. And that’s one of the challenges that e-marriage or Skype marriage presents. There is a whole regulatory body associated with marriage. That’s why we have licenses. We have seen a retreat from the regulatory oversight of marriage.

So, for instance, there are very few states that require blood tests to make sure you [don’t] have VD or require medical exams. Some states used to do that, and that it’s very pro forma to get a license. In a way, electronic marriage, or “e-marriage,” is the culmination of that trend toward a complete lack of oversight. On the other hand, that does raise serious issues. So certainly there’s a question there, as you point out, of being able to ascertain intent, and that’s particularly important in immigration, where it could be another country—there’s real issues of taking advantage of women. This is both an exciting development and a real challenge for society.

Steven Cherry: You mentioned a circumstance where a bride or groom just can’t get to the wedding, maybe one of them is in the hospital. And Skype’s blog actually describes a marriage where the groom had to be in the hospital and the family went ahead with the big fancy wedding. It was a 500-person church wedding, I think, where the groom appears on a screen from the hospital, and that seems very different from a laptop in a living room with a bare minimum of witnesses. Weddings are meant to be, if not a big thing, at least a public thing, aren’t they?

Adam Candeub: Yeah. And I mean, again, I think this is the development of a trend, a way toward a sort of social affirmation. If you look at the requirements of marriage in Anglo-American law, they used to call what was “announcing the banns.” I don’t know if you are familiar with that, but for four Sundays before the marriage, the minister with the church of England would say, “So and so are going to get married. Are there any objections?”

And sometimes there were, because there were issues of bigamy or whatever, and people would come, and society was sort of able to police marriage in that way. But the states moved away from that. I think that people are personalizing marriage. I think it’s becoming a lot more diverse, different significances for different people, and in a way this is a natural extension of that trend. But you’re right—it is a turn away from the public.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, Austen and Trollope and George Eliot always have the banns and people waiting out those weeks in the hopes that nobody’s going to raise a problem.

Adam Candeub: That’s right.

Steven Cherry: Maybe I should get your comment after all on my theory that the community in miniature assembled to bless a marriage does so on behalf of society as a whole.

Adam Candeub: Yeah, I mean, I think you’re right. That is the way our concept of marriage was born. It was very much of a social role that was specific to a given place and time in a given community. But by the same token, we are living in a globalized world. People do form attachments that are often on the other side of the planet, and that marriage law has to somehow recognize that. There are real needs for people to get married when they can’t physically be together. I think it’s most precedent in the military, where you have to settle issues like survivorship benefits, but also in other circumstances, where just simply inheritance, or something has to be settled.

So to give you one example, I have friends who are German, and, of course, sophisticated Europeans. They delay marriage but they ended up having a child, and they realized the issues of who gets custody upon death are so complicated, and they spent so much time thinking about it, that they decided, “Oh, let’s just get married and make it simple.” So in many ways, e-marriage can help in the new needs of a globalized world.

Steven Cherry: Well, fair enough. I’m not sure what my grandparents would have thought of a Skype marriage, but maybe my grandchildren will find in-person weddings as weird as vinyl records and telephone handsets.

Adam Candeub: Well, it could be a change, but again, you have to think about different ways of, one, making sure that people aren’t exploited and that indeed there is true consent. But also you’re right, we may just feel differently about the whole ceremony, and that this change is kind of inevitable.

Steven Cherry: Well, Adam, thanks for giving us a peek into the future of one of humanity’s oldest rituals.

Adam Candeub: Well, thank you. It was a real pleasure, and good luck with your ceremonies. And if you ever want to get online and start doing them by Skype, give me a call.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with law professor Adam Candeub of Michigan State University about marriage by proxy, when advanced telecommunications is the only way to get you to the church on time.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded Tuesday, 19 March 2013.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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