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Courthouse Weddings: How to Include Friends & Family

“We’ve considered eloping….”

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When I ask engaged couples how stressed out they are about their wedding planning process, I can’t tell you how many have confided in me that they have considered ditching the big, traditional wedding format and heading straight to City Hall.

This confession is usually delivered with half-sarcasim and a hint of guilt as couples think about one thing: the reactions of their family and friends, who may not be supportive of the couple choosing to stray from the traditional path and plan for something much more intimate. It’s as if engaged people have a disapproving, invisible wedding manager following them around, raising their eyebrow every time they even think about straying off the beaten path. Even if that invisible force is just their conscience worrying about the right or wrong way to plan a wedding, it’s still very obvious to me that it adds a lot of stress and doubt to wedding planning. Doubt can lead to anxiety in couples as they power through their planning process, and that’s no fun at all.

Over the years, I’ve photographed a number of courthouse weddings, and have grown to see the uniqueness and spirit in each one. Once thought of as a “shotgun” (or maybe even second-rate?) alternative to formal weddings, I would argue that courthouse weddings are a smart, cost-effective, intimate option for couples who aren’t pumped about the more traditional route.

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Whether it’s cost, general stress-factor, timing, or the appeal of not being the total center of attention all day (introverts I see you!) there are a lot of arguments for considering a courthouse wedding. So why don’t more couples choose that route? One thought is that a lot of couples would feel sad about not having their families there to take part in their day.

You can make your courthouse wedding just as warm and welcoming to your loved ones as any other ceremony, with a little planning and inspiration.

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above: Wendy’s son and daughter played a huge role in the couple’s wedding day at the Seattle Municipal Courthouse.

Here a few ideas, mostly borrowed from my past courthouse clients, that will hopefully help you envision your day and empower you to make the most of your trip to City Hall.

1. Invite only your dearest VIP’s to witness your vows. You can celebrate with the rest later.

Just because you’re having a courthouse wedding doesn’t mean you can’t include the people you love… You just have to narrow it down to your closest few if you’re inviting a group to the courthouse. Who comes to mind when you picture the people who will be there by your side at your wedding? Whether it’s your parents, your siblings, your children, or your bestie, knowing the folks who are most important and crucial to your experience will help you keep planning in check. Start by choosing your witnesses; you’ll need 2 people over the age of 18 to sign paperwork at your ceremony. The Seattle Municipal Court prefers wedding parties of 8 or less, but call ahead to ask permission if you end up with a bigger posse. Oh yeah, and you can still choose a best man and/or maid of honor.  Who says you can’t?

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above: Alexa and Teague’s families look on during their courthouse ceremony.

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above: the groom and best man share a laugh before the ceremony

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2. Mail announcements soon after your wedding.

Why not share your news with friends and extended family who weren’t there to see your nuptials for themselves? Sending announcements — Yes! Old fashioned, paper announcements!– is a great option for bringing your loved ones up to speed. One of my couples had an illustrator friend design a super-cute postcard for the bride and groom to send out — such a fun idea! Websites like minted and tinyprints have a great selection of wedding announcement options that are easy to customize. Many can be printed in postcard form, or have the option of including an envelope for easy mailing.

Fun tip: include a 4×6 print from your wedding day and a personalized note with your announcement — recipients will like that extra touch. Most photographers will send you one or two “sneak peek” images the week after your event takes place. Talk to your photographer about getting an image early on to include in announcements so you can send them right away. Search Pinterest for wedding announcement wording. Even if extended family weren’t physcially a part of your day, they will likely share in your joy and delight in receiving this special mail.seattle courthouse wedding photography-lovesongphoto-0003-3

3. Plan a special meal –or an entire party!– for after you seal the deal. Make it your own.

Even if you choose to have a courthouse wedding or intimate ceremony elsewhere, a good way to incorporate community into your day is through food. Check-in time for weddings at the courthouse is 4:30PM, Monday-Friday. You’ll spend maybe an hour at the courthouse between check-in and license signing, so it works great to invite friends to join up for happy hour afterward or make a dinner reservation for later that evening. Depending on the number of VIP’s you may have, you can also rent out the party room at your favorite restaurant and celebrate with your loved ones into the evening, like Nicole and Joe and Wendy and Erik did. Even if guests can’t be present for the ceremony, your VIP’s will likely jump at the chance to celebrate with you after! Also, there is no time limit for a post-ceremony celebration… If it stresses you out less to have the party a day, week, or month later, just do that! I’ve found that people will want to celebrate with you either way.

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above: Nicole and Joe chose their favorite local pizza place for a gathering after their courthouse wedding. yum!

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above: erik and wendy met their guests at a bar in Sodo for a celebratory pint after their nuptials.

4. Include your guests in portrait time. It’s worth it.

Your courthouse wedding is still a big deal. It’s likely that the people you invite, no matter how few, are important to you. That’s why it makes sense to plan on including guests in some photos. This can be as easy as some simple groupings inside the courthouse while you wait for your turn to tie the knot. Most of my couples either do group portraits a few minutes before their ceremony or just after the deal is sealed. Waiting time can be great for some documentary style photos… A lot of life happens in those few minutes before people get married, no matter what size your wedding is! (Don’t forget to schedule some portrait time for yourselves, too!)

the couple

above: Alma & Jake’s families pauses for a group photo before heading to the courthouse.

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courthouse wedding family photo

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above: Wendy and her daughter share a moment after the marriage license signing.

5. Be specific about your expectations ahead of time.

Whether you’d prefer your loved ones to be involved in your courthouse plans or not, be up front with them about their role, whatever that may be. In my experience, family members often like it if they’re given a job to do, a way to contribute and a part to play. So, for example, if you are inviting relatives or friends to the courthouse, you can ask them to help you greet guests at your after party while you and your new partner take portraits. Or, if you’d prefer they kick back and relax instead without any major responsibilities, just tell them that. Let them know what your expectations of them are beforehand.

Weddings are transitions for families, too, not just for couples, so I find that family members often expect to be involved or have some responsibilities on the day-of, even if that means something small like picking up your bouquet, helping you get ready, playing a song on the guitar during your ceremony, or tying your tie… If they know exactly how they fit into your day beforehand, that will hopefully cut back on the stress factor for you and them.

What about people who don’t make the guest list? If you want to let them in on your plans beforehand, tell them gently –but firmly– that this is the route you and your partner want to go, and that you’re keeping it small. Be clear that you appreciate their support and that you can’t wait to celebrate with them and/or show them pictures after!

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6. Hold your ground if you experience resistance or judgement.

Just because a courthouse wedding may be more spontaneous doesn’t mean that it’s any less of a union. Know that your decision to stray from the traditional wedding model is a solid, financially responsible decision, and probably a good decision for you as you move forward into marriage. Stand firm together as a couple, and enjoy doing things your way.

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Have you planned a courthouse wedding? I’d love to hear your experience!

  • July 25, 2016 - 6:09 pm

    Rozi - Thank you for this wonderful post! My partner and I are considering a courthouse ceremony and it’s great to read about the process (and see photos of the Seattle Municipal Court! What an amazing view!)

  • July 27, 2016 - 9:12 pm

    lovesong - Hi Rozi,
    Thanks for your kind comment! All the best in your courthouse wedding planning!Let me know if you need a photographer. :)