Ship Wedding Source

From TV Tropes:

"Since the days of the first wooden vessels, all ship masters have had one happy privilege: that of uniting two people in the bonds of matrimony."
— Captain James T. Kirk (*)

Due to numerous examples on TV and and in movies I have never doubted the veracity of this, but:

Well... wrong.

Captains can perform marriages, but they need a license to do so, just like anyone else would.
There are no laws that "automatically" grant captains this right.

Unfortunately "TV Tropes" cites no sources.

My Question:

  • Does a ship's captain have the power to perform marriages?
  • 2
    Note: during my research I actually found the answer, but in accordance to this I'll wait for someone else to answer it.
    – Oliver_C
    Oct 17 '11 at 16:56
  • 4
    no need to wait. Share with us your bounty of evidence!
    – Oddthinking
    Oct 17 '11 at 17:55
  • 2
    The answer given so far is clear as mud, riddled with exceptions but I can't give any clearer answer. Only an unequivocal anecdote. My mom did in fact marry her last husband on a cruise ship and the ceremony was indeed performed by the captain of the ship. The ceremony did take place in port in Tampa Florida. The captain was not a member of the clergy nor a judge. Florida is not a common law marriage state. However, I do know that the marriage is recognized by the state. The answer given so far implies that this could not legally happen but I know for a fact it has and occurs regularly.
    – Dunk
    Oct 17 '11 at 22:04
  • 1
    @Dunk - are you SURE that the captain was not in some way licensed to marry people? Like a mail certificate from a non-mainstream church, or some other bureaucratic loophole? Most captains would be motivated to obtain such since it increases attractiveness of taking the cruise. Also, define "recognized by the state"? Was the validity of their marriage ever contested in court? If not, then they don't prove anything one way or another.
    – user5341
    Oct 18 '11 at 10:21
  • 1
    When I saw this title, I first thought it was about the captain himself getting married.
    – Fiksdal
    Oct 27 '16 at 14:40

StraightDope has this one dissected pretty thoroughly.


TL;DR: No, there's nothing special about ship's captain job that lets them officiate a marriage, at least in the US Law.

In other words, a ship's Captain can officiate a marriage only in the same circumstances that anyone else on the ship can - e.g. the couple would either have to be under jurisdiction of a state that recognizes common-law marriage, or the person doing the marrying (captain or not) has to be a clergy member or JD or other qualification recognized by the state.

Relevant legal docs cited by StraightDope are:

For the US Navy: Code of Federal Regulations, Title 32, Subtitle A, Chapter VI, Subchapter A, Part 700, Subpart G, Rule 716, also known as 32 CFR 700.716:

"The commanding officer shall not perform a marriage ceremony on board his ship or aircraft. He shall not permit a marriage ceremony to be performed on board when the ship or aircraft is outside the territory of the United States, except: (a) In accordance with local laws … and (b) In the presence of a diplomatic or consular official of the United States."

Similarly, the official logbook supplied to ships' captains by the British Mercantile Marine Office warns that shipboard marriages performed by the captain are not legal. If the ship is registered in New York state, the captain can be fined or imprisoned.

They also further discuss Fisher vs. Fisher. court decision and why it doesn't mean that this myth is true.

Please note that what may cause the confusion are 2 facts:

  • The captains are allowed - actually required - to be the registrar of any marriages (along with other important events on the ship) via the ship's log. So as long as someone legal (captain or not) performed the ceremony, the captain will register the fact in an official document.

  • Captains are likely to be licensed to perform the marriage (especially on cruise ships) aside from their captain status; as all it takes is a mail-in certificate from some religion (Universal Life seems to be popular). I wouldn't be surprised if cruise line companies encourage this to increase the value proposition of their ships.

  • I am interested in where the myth came from :)
    – user288
    Oct 18 '11 at 8:40
  • 2
    @Sejanus - see StraightDope link. They cover that as well.
    – user5341
    Oct 18 '11 at 10:17
  • I have two problems with this answer: (1) what about international waters? What laws apply here? How can e.g. the US apply fines to captains acting outside the US? (2) this answer is too localised in general. Does the US allow the clergy to marry people? Well, many other states don’t so getting a mail-in certificate from some church is pretty irrelevant. Oct 19 '11 at 9:49
  • 1
    @Konrad - for (1), I know that plains are considered jurisdiction of the airline's flag country. I don't know if the same holds true for ships but wouldn't be surprised if that was the case. (2) Could you please show examples (or explain how to properly google for something like that)? Not that I doubt you, but I'm very curious since I was under impression that the clergy marrying people was a pretty universal thing.
    – user5341
    Oct 24 '11 at 13:42
  • @Kon -this is the best reference I have found for #1. TL;DR skimming seems to have the answer of "Jurisdiction is murky " . people.howstuffworks.com/cruise-ship-law1.htm . Relevant quote seems to support my last comment: "Once a ship is 24 miles from any coastline, it's on the high seas (or international waters). With the exception of certain rights within the contiguous zone, the law of that ship is the law of the country whose flag it's flying. So, a Liberia-registered cruise ship that's 25 miles off the coast of California isn't subject to U.S. law; it's subject to Liberian law."
    – user5341
    Oct 24 '11 at 13:48

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