Marriage by proxy booming in Montana

By her own count, Sarah Knapton has been "married" more than 250 times. So last Thursday when she took her vows before Municipal Judge Heidi Ulbricht, it was just another day at the altar.

"I do," she intoned, and at that, Ulbricht pronounced her married, by proxy, for the umpteenth time to the man by her side, Kyle Kirkland, a high school classmate.

It wasn't an altar; Knapton and Kirkland really weren't married to each other. In fact, Knapton has a steady boyfriend, and Kirkland is happily married to someone else. And actually, on this day, Knapton and Kirkland took their vows and were pronounced married 11 times in 21 minutes. And for their time and trouble, each was paid $550 -- or $50 per wedding.

The real wedding parties -- Sheila and Samuel, Cynthia and Kevin, Richard and Lucilyn were just three of the 11 couples -- were nowhere to be seen. Knapton, 21, and Kirkland, 21, were merely stand-ins -- proxies is the legal term -- in this ceremony unusual to the rest of the country, but a phenomenon becoming more common all the time in Montana.

That's because Montana is the only state in the country that provides for double proxy marriages -- meaning that neither party need be present at the actual ceremony. Instead, stand-ins represent the bride and groom.

The growing number of double-proxy marriages -- from a handful just a few years ago to hundreds each year -- prompted Democratic state Rep. Deborah Kottel to propose tightening the statute this spring.

A former Chicago lawyer, Kottel said, "The clerks were being inundated. While many were coming from the military, there were a lot coming from all over -- from Israel; a man in China wanted to marry a woman in Denmark. Court clerks were spending hours and hours on these."

Last month, Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed into law Kottel's bill requiring that one of the parties to such a marriage must either be a Montana resident or a member of the military on active duty.

The 11 marriages performed last Thursday all involved military personnel, said Dean Knapton, the attorney who prepared the documents and whose daughter has been a regular proxy for him for the past few years. He first got involved in what has become a cottage industry with a military proxy marriage in 2003; when news of the event spread via Internet, suddenly he was flooded with requests.

"The statute had been on the books since just after World War II," Knapton said in an interview. "But once it got on the Internet and businesses advertising their services to arrange for it got going, I started getting a lot of them."

Peg Allison, the District Court Clerk here, said, "I am the queen of marriages in Flathead County. Prior to 2004, we probably did one double proxy marriage every five years. Since then, we average about 20 to 30 a month."

Virtually all of these are performed in Kalispell or in Bozeman, where attorney Christopher Gillette has done about 60 in the past year.

"There is no kissing of the bride," he said, laughing. He said he processes the marriages -- his secretary, Colette Hanson, is the bride and he is the groom -- without the mini-ceremony that takes place in Kalispell.

"I talked to the judge and he agreed there's not much point in having a ceremony," Gillette said. "It's a little unromantic, but it's expeditious."

Marie Connolly fields requests for legal information on behalf of the State Bar of Montana. "Montana became an insta-flourishing marriage business. We got a lot of requests from Israel, where civil ceremonies are not allowed."

She said that when she got a letter from an Israeli law firm inquiring about setting up a franchise of sorts, she became concerned. "The purpose of the bill was for the military, and there was a fear that it was being abused. The intention was to modify the law without shutting the door to its highest intentions."

Inquiries have come from all the world, according to Kottel. "There were hundreds and hundreds of requests for information. We decided the law needed to be amended to make it clear and eliminate ambiguity, although I am not sure how Montana has the authority to issue marriage licenses for an entirely foreign jurisdiction."

Sarah Knapton, a student at Flathead Valley Community College, says being a proxy bride is no big deal anymore. "At first, though, it was kind of weird. Kyle is my friend and he is married and I have a boyfriend, but we had to say `I do.' But I can make a lot of money off it."

Dean Knapton said a typical fee charged by a private business for each marriage is about $900, of which he gets $150, the proxy bride and groom each get $50 and the judge gets $100. A wedding license costs $53.

The ceremonies last Thursday were conducted in a small conference room next to courtroom 3 on the third floor of the District Court building. The judge, Sarah Knapton, and Kirkland sat at a table and in rapid-fire fashion completed 11 weddings.

"We are gathered here today in the presence of these witnesses to join in holy matrimony this man and this woman, who have applied for and received a marriage license from the state," Ulbricht began each time.

She looked at Sarah Knapton. "Will you have this man by proxy to be your lawful wedded husband and with him live together in holy matrimony pursuant to the laws of God and this state?

"I do," Sarah replied.

"Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him both in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, keep you only unto him, so long as you both shall live?" the judge said.

"I do," Sarah answered.

After repeating the same for Kirkland, Ulbricht declared, "By the virtue of the authority vested in me as a municipal court judge of the state of Montana, I now pronounce you husband and wife -- Richard and Lucilyn -- by proxy."

Afterward, Dean Knapton walked out with his daughter into the afternoon sunlight. Instead of heading to a reception, they were going home.

"I don't see anything wrong with Montana allowing the solemnization of a union that is nothing but positive," he said. "We want people to be married, right?"