It's almost Valentine's Day, and love is in the air, as evidenced by this intimate and informal wedding that took place just last week in Bigfork, Montana.
Tom Kennedy pronounced: "We are gathered here today … "
But there's just one thing. These two women exchanging vows aren't the brides. They're actually stand-ins for a real bride and groom who are thousands of miles away. How was this possible? Because of an obscure Montana law that permits "double proxy marriage" – a legal wedding where neither person even sets foot in the state.
"Everywhere I go people just go, 'Double proxy marriage? What's that?'" said Peg Allison, who has been Flathead County Clerk of District Court since 1993, which means she oversees all legal marriages. It was about a decade into her tenure before she'd even heard about this law, thanks to a call from a lawyer looking for a creative way to marry a couple that was overseas.
"I think I literally said to him on the phone, 'You're kiddin' me?'" Allison told correspondent Luke Burbank.
The law's been on the books since Montana became a territory. It likely started to let young miners who'd come west for work marry their sweethearts back home. These days, at least one person getting married has to be a Montana resident, or an active member of the military.
Allison said, "It's a completely bizarre piece of code, and as far as I know, there's not a single other state in the Union that allows double proxy."
And here In Flathead County, it's become a big business. Eighty percent of all weddings in this picturesque corner of the Treasure State are actually by double proxy, including 295 last month alone.
"In 2019 we did 1,200," said Allison. "And then COVID hit, so in 2020 we went from 1,200 a year to 4,200 annually. And then in 2021 we did another 4,300 of them."
Tom and Teresa Kennedy run Armed Forces Proxy Marriages' out of their home in Big Fork. It's one of just a handful of companies that perform these marriages.
Before the pandemic, they say they averaged around 40 weddings per month. "With COVID, it got so crazy, this phone didn't stop ringing," said Tom. "I said, '10:00 at night, just shut the phone off.' But we were getting no rest."
"We just weren't functioning," said Teresa. "Yeah, it got insane."
Burbank asked, "How many of these weddings did you help sort of facilitate last year?"
"Close to 2,000, I think," Tom replied. "You stop counting, because it just becomes a lotta work."
For $750 the Kennedys will help a couple file all the necessary paperwork to become legally married in Montana. it might sound like an odd way to walk down the aisle, but it worked out for Rachael Francioni and her husband, Michael. He's currently overseas, but they got married last March ahead of his deployment, unsure if they'd have time for a more traditional wedding.
"We just got an email saying, 'Congratulations! You were married in the majestic mountains of Glacier Park," Francioni said, "My mom and I were in the kitchen, and she ended up putting a little paper towel on my end and started singing the little wedding song!"
Being legally married actually allows Rachael to know more information about her husband's whereabouts when he's deployed. And there are other benefits to being married in the military: for one, getting a Basic Housing Allowance, which helped Jacob Sifert and Amina Kamau save to buy their first home.
Sifert said, "For us as a couple who's just starting out, it sounds, you know, you could make it sound trite that this financial thing was important to us, but that really helped us out."
When they got married in December of 2018, Amina, a political campaigner, was home in Florida while Jacob, then an Air Force Senior airman, was stationed in Korea. With Tom and Teresa's help, they took the plunge.
But that didn't mean Amina was quite ready to tell her family that she'd gotten married in Montana, via the internet: "They just blinked," she said. "And my mom [had] to take some time to accept that I kept it from her, but knew that when we did it, we had goals in mind, we had a vision, and that we knew we were each other's person.
"My dad was like, 'Oh, this is great!" she laughed.
Tom Kennedy said, "I love it. You're in the moment, standing in for someone. You're doing something that we feel is a patriotic duty on our part."
So much so, that Tom, Teresa, and their employee, Rachel Bodick, perform actual vows on behalf of their clients, even though there no legal requirement to do so.
Tom: "Do you, Teresa, as proxy for Ryan Weaver, take Miranna Bass to be your wife?"
Teresa: "I do."
Tom: "Do you, Rachel, as proxy for Miranna Bass, take Ryan Weaver to be your husband?"
Rachel: "I do."
"I really felt honored to be asked to do that," Bodick said, "because I know that it means the world to the people that we're marrying. And it's such an easy thing for me to do."
On the day "Sunday Morning" was there, Teresa Kennedy and Rachel Bodick said "I-Do's" on behalf of five couples.
Meanwhile, Peg Allison, who at one time had never even heard of this quirky law, has a new problem: double proxy marriages have become so popular she worries her office might not be able to keep up.
"We should probably just stop the interview right here so that, you know, you won't have anything to air – this could be a big problem for me!" she laughed. "It could be a problem for my office, because I've got my hands full!"
For more info:
- Flathead County Clerk of District Court, Kalispell, Mont.
- Armed Forces Proxy Marriages, Bigfork, Mont.
Story produced by Michelle Kessel. Editor: George Pozderec.
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