In October 2020, Scott Marmon married Agustina Montefiori in what was by all accounts a mostly traditional ceremony, with a white dress, lots of guests, and just one unusual feature – the parties were 6,000 miles apart at the time.
Though Scott and Agustina used modern technology to perform their ceremony, long distance weddings themselves are not new. For hundreds of years it has been legal in some jurisdictions for a replacement, or proxy, to stand in for one (or both) of the participants in a marriage. Many European and other world’s monarchs married by proxy since the middle ages.
In present times, proxy marriages are still regularly used by people for religious purposes, people in the military, prison, or otherwise unable to travel. In the United States, proxy marriages can be legally performed in California, Colorado, Texas, and Montana. Montana even allows double-proxy marriages, where both parties are absent. However, all states require that one party be active-duty military, except Colorado, which also allows military contractors, and Texas, which also allows incarcerated individuals to marry by proxy.
Even though the phrase “proxy marriage” is occasionally used in place of “online marriage,” they are different things, and regulated by different laws. In an online marriage there are no proxies, and instead the primary parties connect via Zoom, or other video conferencing software. During the COVID-19 pandemic, online marriages became somewhat common, though most states required the primary participants (the two people getting married and the person officiating the marriage) to all be physically located in the state that issued the license, and some required they be in the same location as each other.
The one major exception is Utah, where Scott and Agustina got married in what appears to be the first International online marriage. In Utah, only one of the three participants must be physically located in the state during the ceremony. This allows both people getting married to be out of state (and possibly out of the country) as long as the person officiating the marriage is in Utah.
Both proxy marriages and online marriages are covered by the same USCIS rule, which allows marriages where a party is absent as long as the parties are in a bona fide relationship, the marriage is legal where it was performed, and is consummated after the legal marriage is done. The exact rule is INA 101(a)(35):
The term “spouse”, “wife”, or “husband” do not include a spouse, wife, or husband by reason of any marriage ceremony where the contracting parties thereto are not physically present in the presence of each other, unless the marriage shall have been consummated.
Consummation must be after the ceremony, and may be confirmed by a personal affidavit supported by documentary evidence, such as plane tickets, hotel receipts, or photographs of the couple on their honeymoon.
The consummation requirement makes online marriages significantly less useful as an immigration tool than they would be without it, because if the parties are required to physically get together anyway, many couples could just get married in person at that time. However, online marriages may be extremely useful for couples where the person in the US can visit their spouse in a foreign country where the marriage would not otherwise be performed, either because it is same sex, because the parties are of different religions, or because it would violate some other foreign law. A great example for it is Israel, where there is no civil marriage and only religious marriages can be performed.
Moreover, couples who do not have the same religion would not be able to get married in Israel; the only way for people of different (or no) faith to marry in Israel is by converting to the same religion or now to do it via Zoom. The only other benefit to a Zoom marriage for U.S. immigration purposes is that United States Immigration Services would grant a 10-year Legal Permanent Residency (LPR) for couples with a marriage anniversary of over 24 months and 2 year conditional (LPR) for those married less then two years.
Stay tuned for any changes in the law to allow marriages where physical “consummation” is no longer needed for immigration benefits to apply.