Married in Montana: Servicemembers take advantage of state’s double-proxy law

The Wheelers tied the knot in February while Beth was deployed to Kuwait and John was working in Iraq.

By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 26, 2009

The day Spc. Lloyd Baker wed was a somber one.

He wasn’t ruing the end of bachelorhood. It’s just that he didn’t know Feb. 4, 2009, was to be his wedding day until after he returned from visiting the former Nazi German concentration camp at Dachau with some Army buddies.

An e-mail sitting in his inbox at home in Vilseck, Germany, announced the sudden nuptials.

Just like that, he was a married man.

“It didn’t hit me right away,” the 26-year-old said.

The wedding certificate and ring from his wife arrived by mail later.

An infantryman with Ghost Rider Company, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, Baker has yet to kiss his new bride, Cindy, who is waiting for him 4,000 miles away in South Carolina.

He and Cindy are among hundreds of mostly military couples to get hitched in Montana without being the ones to tie the knot.

A quirky law makes Montana the only state that legalizes double-proxy marriage, so named because two people stand in for the bride and groom. The paid proxies exchange a few perfunctory “I do’s” and seal the deal without locking lips.

“I’m surprised how easy and how quick it was,” Baker said. “We only had to wait a week from when we turned our paperwork in for it to get totally processed. It was another week for the marriage certificate to get to me in Germany.”

Such ease has made wedding-by-proxy attractive to military lovebirds separated by geography or war, even though long-distance matrimony is about as romantic as getting engaged over Twitter.

But couples with at least one military spouse who have used the service say sacrificing romance for convenience is worth it.

Cindy Baker had to talk Lloyd into the idea — “It didn’t really seem like something I would do,” he said — but he has no regrets.

With the extra money the Army will pay him now that he’s married — an estimated $1,200 to $1,400 a month — the Bakers will be able to afford their dream wedding this fall, he said.

For Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Drew, his July proxy wedding while assigned to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan boosts the likelihood he’ll get orders to a duty station near his wife in Jacksonville, Fla. Besides, he didn’t want to wait until after his one-year tour in Japan to marry Salina, whom he’s known for more than two years.

“I wanted to marry her before I left for Japan but I was short on time,” he said. “We found whatever option we could to make that happen.”

‘It’s not very romantic’

The Drews used the services of A Big Sky Event, one of two home-based businesses to have sprung up in the last five years to provide weddings in absentia to military personnel scattered across the globe — and in most cases, with no ties to Montana.

Until two years ago, even foreign couples were taking advantage of the state’s open-ended proxy marriage rules. The law originated during Montana’s mining boom of the 1860s, presumably to accommodate out-of-state miners and their far-flung fiancées.

With district court clerks overwhelmed with paperwork, the law was amended two years ago to require one member of the couple to either be a Montana resident or in the U.S. military.

Business is still booming. Flathead County district court processes from six to 20 double-proxy marriage licenses per week, an official there said.

The majority of those are for couples with at least one active-duty military member who usually is either deployed or assigned overseas, according to the court official.

But double-proxy unions were seldom made until Pennsylvania couple Sam and Barbara Geller launched S&B Professional Services. About six years ago, Sam, a retired teacher, found a story on the Internet about a Montana couple who stood in for their son, who was deployed to Iraq, and his pregnant Italian girlfriend.

“When I saw it, I thought, ‘My god, that’s interesting,’ ” Sam said. “I called the parents. They gave me the information to contact the attorney who dealt with it. From that, the idea was born.”

Seeing an opportunity more recently, Marty Stuehler, owner of A Big Sky Event in Bigfork, Mont., added double-proxy marriages to his wedding-planning business, which previously had specialized in Montana elopements.

An ordained minister from Wisconsin, Stuehler hires two friends, Cindee Pascoe and Kate Mendoza, to stand in for the real bride and groom.

They gather in Stuehler’s home office. The ceremony begins with Stuehler saying a few words. It might start out something like this: “Do you Cindy, representing Joseph, accept Danielle, through your daughter Kate” to be your wife?

“It takes five to six minutes per marriage, including paperwork,” Stuehler said. “We usually do one to four at a time. It’s not very romantic.”

‘We said, what the hell’

A no-frills wedding was just what the Wheelers had in mind. Beth, a Navy lieutenant commander and currently the senior medical officer at Camp Virginia, Kuwait, met John, an Army captain currently deployed to Iraq, on the online dating site Match.com. Both had been married before.

“There hadn’t been much traditional about our relationship, so we said, what the hell,” said John, of their decision to marry by proxy.

They wed almost a year to the day they first met in person, while both were living in Bremerton, Wash.

“Weddings are supposed to be a lot of fun but they usually end up being a pain in the neck,” Beth, 35, said. “We didn’t want another walk down the aisle. We had been there, done that.”

With their marriage official on Feb. 11, John, 31, of Plymouth, N.H., was recently able to spend two weeks of a scheduled rest and recuperation with his wife in Kuwait.

It was hardly a honeymoon — Beth lives in a container housing unit with two bunk beds — but the newlyweds quickly settled into married life.

“I do Beth’s laundry a lot. Go to the gym,” John said, as both he and Beth laughed.

Doing the right thing

For the bona fide bride and groom, a double-proxy wedding costs from $600 to $950.

Stuehler pays an attorney $175 per couple; the stand-in proxies get $50 each; the court fee is $53; and it costs $14 each to make marriage certificate copies and to mail them back to each party, he said.

A Montana double-proxy marriage is considered legal in all 50 states except Iowa and is recognized by the U.S. military.

Still, Drew, the sailor in Iwakuni, had to convince his command that his marriage was legal.

“I was having problems out here with the base not letting me do it,” he said. “I had to show them an ad about it, just so they would actually believe me [that it was legal].”

Drew had to produce the paperwork he filed with A Big Sky Event, an affidavit saying why he wanted to marry his fiancée and giving permission for a proxy to stand in for him.

Most people the Gellers work with opt for a proxy marriage in order to be stationed together, or to speed up a wedding ahead of an unexpected deployment, Sam said.

But the Gellers won’t marry all comers.

“If someone has not met their fiancée in person, we won’t deal with it, or if there’s legal problems with someone,” Sam Geller said.

On their Web site, MarriageByProxy.com, the Gellers encourage military personnel to “do the right thing.”

“If you are stationed overseas with the Army, Air Force, Navy or the Marines and your fiancée is pregnant or has a child you can protect your family by getting legally married by proxy,” the Web site states.

Stuehler said he doesn’t pass judgment on couples and does little counseling. But he will take calls any hour of the day from curious servicemembers contemplating matrimony.

“For every 100 calls, I will do 65 [proxy marriages], Stuehler said.

Making it legal

One of his more memorable phone calls was with Mike and Opal Murphy, a couple who met in Iraq. Unlike most couples married by double-proxy, the Murphys weren’t separated but tying the knot downrange wasn’t an option, they were told. Opal said her unit’s chaplain said “they no longer performed that kind of service.” Internet research led them to Stuehler, and the two were officially married by double-proxy on April 3. That evening, Stuehler led them through the reading of their vows by phone from Montana.

The two held hands in a military office in Baghdad and exchanged rings while a friend videotaped the affair.

Opal, 32, an Army captain, and Mike, 23, a civilian contractor, didn’t want to put marriage off, lest their careers take them to different locations after their Iraq stints.

“If you want to get it legal and get it taken care of fast, go this route,” Mike said of proxy weddings.

How to get married by double-proxy

Two online businesses now provide couples a way to get married in Montana — without either of them showing up for the wedding.

Sam and Barbara Geller operate Marriage By Proxy from Pennsylvania. They’ve been in business since 2005. The Gellers charge $950 for their services, a fee that includes everything and results in a legal proxy marriage certificate. Visit www.marriagebyproxy.com for more information.

From Bigfork, Mont., Marty Stuehler, with business partner Cindee Pascoe, runs A Big Sky Event, a wedding business that offers Montana elopements and, recently, double-proxy marriage. The latter costs $600. Visit www.abigskyevent.com for more information.

For a double-proxy marriage, bride and groom provide proof of identity and fill out a marriage application.

“Other than a few forms, which must be notarized, most of the paperwork can be completed online and sent by email,” according to A Big Sky Event news release.

The Murphys recite their wedding vows via speaker phone from a military office in Baghdad. Two people stood in for them during their official wedding ceremony on April 3, and the ordained minister who presided over their proxy ceremony also led the couple through their vows via phone from Montana.