What Is a Wedding Witness and Who Should Yours Be?
A wedding witness is a person who observes the wedding ceremony and signs the paperwork afterwards. Witnesses were historically required to make sure that the wedding was done legally, that neither party was being forced into the marriage, and that the officiant carried out their job correctly.
Today, wedding witnesses perform the same role, and it’s still a legal requirement to have them. Anybody who understands what a marriage is and what a legal ceremony should look like is fit to be a witness, even if they’re under 18. Any member of the wedding party can be a witness, too.
The guide below first looks at what a wedding witness is, and why you need one. It will then detail who can and who can’t be a wedding witness, how many witnesses you need, and whether you can have a wedding without one.
What Is a Wedding Witness?
The core role of a wedding witness is to witness the bride, groom and officiant signing the wedding certificate. Once you’re done signing, they have to sign it too, to indicate that they’ve witnessed the wedding taking place (as the name suggests).
A wedding witness can also have other roles. For example, they might be a bridesmaid or an usher (groomsman). There’s no law on who can and can’t be a witness, as long as they’re an adult, and they understand what’s happening. They don’t even need to know the bride and groom!
Why Does a Wedding Need a Witness?
A wedding isn’t just a celebration of your love. It’s an official ceremony with real legal ramifications. Depending on what you want, where you live and what kind of job you have, you may have to change the tax you pay and change your name. It’s also not an ‘agreement’ to be entered into lightly on a personal level.
As such, it’s only right that every wedding ceremony in the country is performed properly, and the participants enter into their ‘agreement’ willingly! It has therefore become a legal requirement for your wedding to be witnessed, and your wedding papers signed, by witnesses.
How Many Witnesses Do You Need At a Wedding?
UK law states that every wedding must have at least two witnesses (aside from the couple getting married, and the person conducting the ceremony, i.e. the officiant or priest).
There are only two spaces for witness’s signatures on the wedding register. But if you’d like to have more than two witnesses, you may be allowed to have more than one signature on each line. This is down to the discretion of the officiant and the venue (church, registry office, etc.). Some officiants will allow more than two witnesses to sign, and some won’t.
If you can’t have more than two official witnesses, you can certainly have more than two people as unofficial witnesses. They can pose next to the register for photos, for example – they just won’t be able to actually sign it.
Who Can Sign the Wedding Register as a Witness?
Almost anyone can be a witness at a wedding. However, depending on family politics, logistics, and preference, you may very much want a specific person to be a witness at your wedding. So, can you have anyone you like witness your wedding, or does it have to be a particular person?
There are almost no limitations to who you can have as a wedding witness. The only rule is that they need to understand what they’re witnessing, otherwise their witnessing of your wedding would be meaningless.
This means that while your witnesses do not have to be UK residents, they must at least be able to speak the language the ceremony is being conducted in. They must also be old enough to understand what weddings are, and why they’re important. They don’t strictly have to be over 18, so long as your officiant judges that they’re old enough to understand the ceremony.
Can a Stranger Be a Wedding Witness?
You absolutely can grab a complete stranger to be your wedding witness—so long as they agree to witness your wedding, that is! This is very common at elopements (where the couple get married privately, with no guests).
You could choose a random member of staff at the wedding venue, somebody who’s at the venue for a different wedding, or even ask someone who’s simply walking past in the street.
The reason this is fine is because what they’re being called to ‘witness’ is that the ceremony is performed legally. The witness isn’t there to testify that the couple are truly in love, or anything like that. The witness’ signature on your wedding paperwork is proof only that the ceremony was legal and entered into without coercion.
It might sound odd to have a complete stranger witness your wedding. But no witness plays a key part in the wedding ceremony unless you want them to. The witness can sit off to the side where they won’t interrupt your big day.
Can Parents Be Marriage Witnesses?
The parents of either the bride or groom can be witnesses, too. This might seem like a ‘conflict of interest’, given that the role of the witness is to ensure the propriety and legality of the ceremony and the signing of the paperwork. But the law doesn’t see it that way, so you’re free to choose from the parents of either the bride or groom. You are also allowed to pick any other family member, from uncles and aunts to grandparents, cousins and so on.
Can People in the Wedding Party Be Witnesses?
Any member of the wedding party is also free to perform the duty of witnessing your wedding. That includes:
• The best man
• The maid of honour/chief bridesmaid
• Ushers (groomsmen)
• The ring bearer, page boy or flower girl (if they’re old enough)
Just make sure you clear their role with them first. You don’t want to surprise them by asking them to be a witness right as you’re signing the register, as they might panic! (Although there’s really nothing to panic about – it’s a simple as signing on the dotted line.)
Do You Need ID to Be a Witness at a Wedding?
You don’t need to bring your ID to the wedding if you’re going to be a witness. That’s because there is no restriction on the age of a witness: they can be a teenager, for example, so long as they clearly understand what they’re doing and why they’re there.
It’s up to the officiant to decide whether the person is a suitable witness or not. Some officiants prefer the witnesses to be over 18.
Don’t despair, though, if the officiant says that your ‘witness’ can’t officially bear witness. You can choose anyone else from your wedding party to do the job instead.
Who Should I Choose to Be My Wedding Witnesses?
This is one area of weddings where the really is no ‘etiquette rule’ that you need to follow. It’s completely up to you who you choose to be a witness at your wedding.
As far as tradition goes, the wedding witnesses are normally the best man and the maid of honour (chief bridesmaid). However, if you don’t have a best man or a maid of honour, you could just as easily choose two bridesmaids or two ushers to sign for you.
It’s also popular to have parents be witnesses – typically one of the groom’s parents, and one of the bride’s parents. But you can choose whoever you want. It really doesn’t matter who witnesses your wedding, as long as it’s witnessed.
Can You Have a Wedding Without Witnesses?
You cannot have a wedding without witnesses in the U.K., although you can in some other countries. It is a legal requirement both for civil weddings and Church of England weddings that the paperwork be signed by two independent witnesses.
If you’re having any guests at your wedding – anyone at all – you can simply ask them to be witnesses for you. Ideally, ask them whether they’d be happy to do this before the wedding day, so you’re not springing it upon them at the last minute.
If you’re eloping, you might want to bring along two friends with you, so that they can act as witnesses. But remember that you can have complete strangers witness your marriage. So even if you have no guests at all, you could ask your photographer, the chauffer who drives you to the venue, or a couple of venue staff.
As a last resort, simply ask a couple of pedestrians who are walking past the venue whether they’d mind witnessing your ceremony!