Michigan's secret wedding law put to an unusual test

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By Marie E. Matyjaszek

Most of us want our wedding to be celebrated by many, sending out “save the date” cards to ensure that people have enough time to plan their attendance.  On Christmas Eve 2019, however, just the opposite happened for a couple in Owosso, Mich. 

John Gleason, who acts as Genesee County’s Clerk-Register, performed an on-the-spot, unplanned wedding for a couple who were about to give birth to their child in the hospital. 

No marriage license had been obtained prior to the ceremony, something that most people assume is mandated to validate any Michigan wedding.  A couple must wait three days from the application before the license is granted, per Michigan law. The applicants have to bring birth certificates, valid state photo identification, and provide their Social Security numbers.

The couple that Gleason married did not do any of this, as the baby was an emergency delivery.  Gleason called Shiawassee County Clerk Caroline Wilson on Christmas Eve and asked for permission to perform the wedding prior to marrying the couple. While he was granted permission, Wilson claims that Gleason was not entirely forthcoming with all of the facts surrounding the wedding. Gleason has maintained that after he performed the ceremony, he learned the couple was undocumented.

Michigan’s probate judges have the unique ability to approve “secret weddings,” if the court is presented with good reason as to why the wedding should remain private and not part of the public record. They can also backdate the license. Michigan’s secret wedding law dates back to 1897 (Act 180 of 1987; MCL 551.202).

Very few secret marriages take place in Michigan, with only eight occurring in 2018, which is the most recent year in which data is available. The reasons for wanting a secret marriage could be that the couple is particularly young, or they need to keep the wedding quiet for another reason, such as a work policy prohibiting the relationship. 

In this case, it took more than a month after the wedding for a judge to approve the marriage.  There is now an investigation into Gleason’s behavior as he allegedly requested that the clerks backdate documents, and made inappropriate remarks to them when doing so. Gleason denies the accusations. The investigation surrounding Gleason’s actions recently concluded and the report was sent to the Tuscola Prosecutor’s Office for potential criminal charges. Due to Gleason’s position in Genesee County, the case was transferred out of county.

While the couple may be grateful to Gleason for the quick ceremony, it appears that no good deed will go unpunished.

(The author is an Attorney Referee at the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court; however, the views expressed in this column are her own. She can be reached at matyjasz@hotmail.com.)



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